In May of 2020, Eropa Stein found herself in a very tough place. As an entrepreneur and founder of Hyre, a company that provides employee scheduling software, she was desperate to build her business. And the pressure had only become more intense during the pandemic. But as a human being, she was desperate to, well, sleep. And eat. And maybe see some sunshine.
But her human needs took a backseat to her drive to succeed. “I felt as though if I didn’t spend every spare second working on my business, I was being unproductive,” she says. “I wanted to do everything that I could to help my business survive, and that meant working nonstop.”
Even though she recognized it wasn’t healthy, she couldn’t stop. Her mental health took a nosedive. Not only was she feeling mentally and physically exhausted but she became so overwhelmed that she stopped doing things she enjoyed and became isolated from her friends and family. She came to a crisis point when she was finally able to see her loved ones after the long quarantine during the pandemic.
“I was visiting my family and couldn’t engage in meaningful conversations. I was so mentally exhausted that I had to leave the reunion entirely,” she says. “Spending time with my family had always been something that I looked forward to, and when I couldn’t even enjoy my time with them, I knew I was burnt out and that something had to change.”
Stein has something most other people in her situation don’t have: a master’s degree in applied psychology and several years as a researcher studying workplace burnout. She even wrote her thesis on workplace stress and toxic productivity. And she was finally seeing the problematic signs in herself. This mentalitywanting to achieve a goal at any costhas a name: toxic productivity.
Toxic productivity is workaholism on steroids
You’ve probably heard of someone being described as a workaholicsomeone who compulsively works to excess. Toxic productivity takes that to the next level, says licensed clinical psychologist Elena Welsh, PhD, a senior psychologist supervisor at the California Department of State Hospitals.
Someone dealing with toxic productivity feels extremely driven to be productive at all times, not just at work but in all areas of their lives. “Toxic productivity is the inability to do something just for the sake of doing it,” adds Erika Ferszt, an organizational psychologist in London who specializes in toxic productivity and the founder of Moodally, a workplace mood-management program. “All actions must always have a goal or an objective that leads to a sense of personal improvement or achievement.” People suffering from this push themselves to unhealthy extremes and focus on productivity to the exclusion of everything else in their lives.
Yet for something so extreme, it can be tricky to recognize.
“Toxic productivity can be hard to identify because of the high-value society places on being productive professionally, socially, and culturally, and because people are often externally rewarded for productivity,” says Dr. Welsh, who’s also a member of the faculty at Antioch University in Los Angeles.
When everyone around you is trying to be extra productive and encouraging you to do so, it can feel normal or even expected. But the consequences of toxic productivity can be devastating.
Productivity is addicting
Toxic productivity be difficult to spot, and you may be resistant to recognizing it in yourself. That’s because the rush you get from achieving things is psychologically addicting, says Ferszt, who has a postgraduate degree in the neuroscience of mental health.
When you accomplish something, your body provides you with a hit of dopamine, which brings you pleasure. When you’re constantly focused on accomplishing things, it causes you to be in a state of “always on,” with elevated levels of adrenaline.
Over time, your body develops a tolerance and needs more dopamine and adrenaline to deliver the initial rush. “As a result of the way the brain works, toxic productivity can behave like an addiction,” says Ferszt. “You can forget how to live without the sensations that accomplishment and productivity are expected to provide.”
Side effects of toxic productivity
Working too hard over extended periods of time will drain your energy. And it puts a great deal of stress on your body, leading to both mental and physical burnout. Chronic stress is associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety and an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and other “lifestyle” illnesses.
Some of the consequences can be unpredictable. For instance, after 22 years as a high-performing advertising executive, toxic productivity caused Ferszt to go temporarily blind. “I had a burnout episode that put me in the hospital for stress-related vision loss,” she says. “This made me rethink everything in my life, all my priorities.”
Red flags that you may be suffering from toxic productivity
To help you identify this pattern of behavior in yourself or loved ones, we asked our experts to share their top signs of this problematic mindset.
Downtime makes you anxious
Whether it’s crashing on a couch with a movie or taking a walk through the woods, time spent chilling and relaxing is crucial for everyone. If you find yourself unable to take a break or if you can’t unwind during unscheduled time, that’s a problem.
You wonder, “What’s the point?”
If your friend asks you to go for a walk and your immediate reaction is to question why you need to, that’s a bad sign. People dealing with toxic productivity only want to do things for a purpose. For instance, they don’t want to just walk, they want to walk 20 miles a day to train for hiking the Appalachian Trail. “Not everything you do has to have a point,” says Ferszt.
Socializing makes you antsy
Sitting around and shooting the breeze or catching up with loved ones is normally a fun experience and a vital way to reconnect with other people. Toxic productivity can make you feel like you’re wasting your time because you’re not accomplishing anything.
Success feels meaningless
Ostensibly, being successful is the whole point of being productive, but people dealing with toxic productivity end up getting caught in a cycle of being productive just for the sake of productivity. This may mean that when you finally accomplish your goal, it feels hollow, empty, or not good enough. Or you may feel too burned out to appreciate it.
You can’t remember the last time you felt joy
Joy is a simple feeling of delight, but it’s easily missed when you’re laser-focused on a goal. Even if you picked the goal because you thought it would make you feel happy, going overboard can make you lose the joy in it. If you continue, you may move into a state of depression or anhedonia, a condition in which you don’t feel any pleasure. “You can lose the ability to participate and engage fully in the range of experiences that life has to offer,” says Ferszt.
Your kids are in a different activity seven days a week
If productivity is something you value, it makes sense that you would want your family and friends to also be productive. However, that can become toxic when you’re constantly pushing those around you to work harder and accomplish more.
Watching others have fun annoys you
Toxic productivity may become so extreme that not only do you hold yourself and your loved ones to impossibly high standards but you may feel a deep disdain watching anyone “squander” time doing something that appears unproductive to you.
Your bedside table is full of self-improvement books
The massive beauty and self-help industries are dedicated to the idea that you aren’t good enough as you are but if you work hard enough (and buy enough products) you can get better. It can feel like you’re running an endless treadmill of always trying to be a smarter, richer, prettier human beingyet never quite getting there. This can shred your self-esteem, leaving you feeling worthless.
How to stop the cycle
If this is sounding a little too familiar, you may have fallen into some toxic patterns. Don’t worry, there are things you can do right now to get back to a healthier balance in your life.
Make a conscious effort to take time during your day to do absolutely nothing. Stare at the clouds in the sky. Doodle on a piece of paper. Walk aimlessly. Write a poem in a journal. Meditate.
It doesn’t matter how you spend this downtime. But resist the urge to set a goal for this activity. Your brain needs some periods of nothingness to rest and reset.
Deal with the underlying feeling
A lot of toxic productivity is spurred by an underlying fear of something: failure, guilt, unworthiness, yourself.
“It may feel like a paradox, but learning to acknowledge the emotion and sit with it, as opposed to avoiding it by staying super busy, will help this pattern shift,” says Welsh.
You may need a therapist or other mental health professional to help you deal with deeply ingrained feelings.
Make a list of your values
Ask yourself what is truly important to you. Write your values (not goals) down. Then look at how you are actually spending your time to see if your activities are aligned with your values.
“For instance, if the quality of your relationships is at the top of your list but the majority of your time is spent on work activities, there is likely a disconnect there,” says Welsh.
Make self-care a habit
Schedule time every day to do something relaxing and pampering for yourself, like taking a hot bath, coloring an adult coloring book, working on a puzzle, or gently exercising.
“It may feel unpleasant and uncomfortable at the beginning, and you may fear you are wasting precious time, but you are worth the investment,” says Ferszt. “Keep doing it until it becomes a habit.”
Go tech-free for a time
Toxic productivity thrives in our modern connected digital culture, so unplugging is key to letting that stress go. Schedule a time each week to spend at least an hour without any electronics, including your phone.
Do less to do more
What helped Stein truly break free from her toxic productivity was recognizing how unproductive overextending herself was and how she was actually able to accomplish more when she was rested. “I now see that a 20-minute walk outside during lunch gives me the energy to finish my workday, and taking the weekend off from work recharges me for the week,” she says. But best of all, she’s rediscovered her passions outside of her business. “These days, I enjoy spending time journaling, socializing with friends and family, or simply being in nature,” she says.