A recent article appeared in the Huffington Post entitled ‘What Is Toxic Productivity? Here’s How to Spot the Damaging Behaviour.’ For those who haven’t heard of it, toxic productivity is everywhere in our culture: from the pressure to be supermum and wonderdad, to viral tweets condemning those who didn’t come out of the pandemic able to play the tuba while riding a unicycle. Toxic productivity is the little voice in your head that tells you you’re lazy when you don’t fill every second of your day with activity, and every second of your working day with work.
Which is to say, it is cultural, personal, all-pervasive, internal, everywhere and nowhere, and it is costing us a lot. The cost of burnout to productivity, health, and happiness is immense, and 17.9 million work days lost to stress in the UK per year isn’t something an organisation can overlook.
Fortunately, working habits are shifting. The success of work from home over lockdown is causing many businesses to look hard at shifting to hybrid and flexible working policies, and employees are very happy.
On the surface, it may seem like the shift to hybrid and work from home would be a tonic to toxic productivity; after all, with no colleagues or managers watching over your shoulder, what’s to stop you taking it easy? This thinking is doubtless one reason for some employers being so leery of work from home pre-lockdown, and for the proliferation in employee monitoring software and other such invasive techniques for making sure employees don’t skive.
But lockdown didn’t lead to a drop in employee productivity. It turns out most people are broadly responsible, take pride in their work, and are motivated to achieve results. And this is why we are experiencing the opposite problem, now.
Why ‘from home’ means ‘for your toughest boss’
The issue with working from home is that it makes it harder for some employees to switch off. When the office is right next to the living room, the distinction between working time and resting time gets blurry. Without ‘the boss’ checking in to see how things are going, we are forced to turn to our inner boss for help managing our time, and sometimes the inner boss is far less forgiving.
The very concept of ‘skiving’ can play into this. We are conditioned to think of productivity as a thing born of brute, grinding effort, the ‘knuckle down’ mentality. At home, we may feel we are skiving because we are comfortable, or because we just watched a five-minute YouTube video, or because we are having our fourth coffee break of the day. We might feel the need to ‘make it up’ after hours. Or we might feel that there is so much work to do we can’t have any breaks or YouTube videos, and coffee is something we can only eat out of the tin, because there’s no time to put the kettle on.
Either way, we may feel like, when a call comes in at 7.30 on Thursday, we really have to pick up. Everyone else is still busy, why else would they be calling now? And I can’t let them down, and there’s so much on, and remember when I skived yesterday to walk to the shops because I’d eaten all the coffee?
Suddenly, we’ve worked five consecutive twelve-hour days, some intensely productive and some exhausted and ‘skive’ riven. We’ve achieved everything we were meant to and more, but we’re spent, burnt out, and full of guilt.
The irony here is that we have actually had a very successful week, at least as far as productivity goes: we met all our goals! So, what went wrong? As Huff Post puts it, ‘What’s funny about toxic productivity is that it exists more in our heads than in our actual work environments.’
Employers are typically much, much more interested in results than how much effort or time it took to get there. But because our culture is saturated with the idea that procrastination is not just bad business, but bad morals, we put way too much pressure on ourselves to ‘knuckle down’.
Fortunately, there are things employers can do to help prevent this. One crucial strategy is to address the elephant in the room and tackle the myths that give rise to toxic productivity head on.
The concept of ‘skiving’ is a flawed one. Human beings are designed to skive; it’s how our brain architecture works. Our ebbing, flowing attention is what keeps us safe in a hazardous, dynamic world, and it is the font of all creativity—the ability to make new and novel connections between seemingly disconnected things. This is why so many artistic and scientific breakthroughs are made in the shower, the bath, or on a leisurely walk (this is a fact supported by research as well as anecdotal evidence, by the way).
Likewise, ‘knuckling down’ is often not an efficient strategy. Gritting your teeth may get you through a scrape when the chips are down, but if there are chips on the floor every single day, someone needs to retrain the chef.
Employers should make it clear that elegant, easy wins are just as good if not better than long grinds to the finishing line. Huff Post suggests, rather than ‘what should I be doing now, ‘a better question to ask yourself is: “What could I do or create with ease now? What would it take to create this with zero stress?”’
Clarifying this requires actions to speak louder than words, however. It’s no good pushing the work-life balance agenda without creating an appropriate culture. Employers can work with employees to develop hybrid and flexible working policies that let the individual have a say in how they work best. So, get rid of the employee monitoring software: this isn’t a George Orwell novel.
And consider enforcing a ‘right to disconnect’ across the business. CIPD summarises right to disconnect thus:
- The right of an employee to not have to routinely perform work outside their normal working hours.
- The right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours.
- The duty to respect another person’s right to disconnect (e.g., by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours).
Making private time sacrosanct like this encourages employees to respect their own boundaries and not bite off more than they can chew. It encourages them to work smarter, not harder. And that benefits everyone.