Toxic productivity is when you are so obsessed with being productive that you prioritize the tasks on your to-do list over your own wellness, friends and family. You feel guilty when you’re not “on” or accomplishing something, and when you’re forced to take a break, you can’t turn off your brain. You can’t focus on relaxing because you’re always thinking about what you should be doing instead.
Productivity for the sake of productivity can be toxic in a workplace. It creates divides between team members, fosters a competitive workplace culture, and leads to employee burnout.
If you’re unsure if your workplace promotes toxic productivity, continue to read on. We’ll cover the consequences of toxic productivity, signs to watch out for in your workplace, how to prevent toxic productivity from occurring, and what to do if it’s already taking place.
Does your workplace promote toxic productivity?
Productivity is great, and as an HR professional, you want to encourage your team to be as productive as possible. But there’s a difference between healthy productivity and toxic productivity.
Healthy productivity is when team members reach milestones and accomplish their goals in a timely manner while still having time to spend with their family and friends, and focus on their mental and physical health. In other words, they have time to sleep, exercise, watch the occasional Netflix show and attend their child’s soccer game.
With toxic productivity, things are getting done, but the employee clearly isn’t taking time for themselves. They respond to every email or Slack message as soon as they receive it no matter the hour and consistently have a short fuse when communicating with their co-workers. Eventually, team members with a toxic productivity mindset snap. They burn out. They may need to take a long leave or outright quit.
Toxic productivity can be hard to spot, and if it’s not caught in time, it can lead to serious consequences for both the employee and the business.
The consequences of toxic productivity
Toxic productivity is unsustainable. A person simply can’t be “on” or “doing” every minute of every day, no matter how much grit or determination the company or the person believes they have. Burnout is real – so real that The World Health Organization qualified it as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019.
If your workplace encourages toxic productivity, you will soon have a team of deeply unhappy, stressed and depleted people. They will either grow apathetic, quiet quit, actually quit, or face serious mental or physical health concerns, such as depression or cardiovascular issues. One study found that people “who worked more than 55 hours per week had a 13% greater risk of heart attack and were 33% more likely to experience a stroke than those who worked 35 to 40 hours on a weekly basis.”
As an HR professional, you know these results aren’t good for your employees or the business. If you overwork your workforce, you won’t have a workforce, and you’ll spend thousands on employee turnover.
Signs of toxic productivity
Toxic productivity isn’t always easy to spot, especially if your team works remotely, but there are signs to watch for.
How to recognize toxic productivity:
- A team member eats lunch at their desk or not at all
- A team member refuses to take breaks on a daily basis
- A team member hasn’t taken a vacation in a year or more, or refuses to take vacation days when they are suggested
- A team member is visibly exhausted
- A team member frequently loses their temper with their co-workers
- A team member sends emails or Slack messages after working hours and gets frustrated if they’re not responded to right away
- A team member is never satisfied with their work or performance
- Despite working all the time, a team member’s productivity is waning
- A team member has difficulty concentrating during meetings, and
- A team member mentions feeling like they have no personal time.
Each of these points applies to all levels of employees. Managers, business leaders, CEOs and even HR professionals can fall into a toxic productivity mindset. Watch for these signs from all levels of your organization.
As an HR professional, it’s your responsibility to check in with your team members to ensure they’re not overworking themselves – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s highly likely your employees will keep these feelings to themselves to preserve their hard-working, professional image. No one likes to admit they need some help. That’s why the best way to combat toxic productivity is to prevent it altogether.
Preventing toxic productivity
Toxic productivity can eat away at a team from the inside. It corrodes team morale, as employees will compete to accomplish more than each other. It weakens communication, as employees fall into bad habits of quickly sending messages late at night to get more done rather than considering how to communicate effectively. And in the end, it lowers efficiency because team members burn out.
For these reasons and more, it must be prevented at all costs. It’s vital that all leaders in your business are proactive about preventing this toxic trap. Here’s how to prevent toxic productivity from developing in the first place.
1. Encourage a healthy work-life balance
Employees have a life outside of work. While this is certainly stating the obvious, it’s important to be proactive about acknowledging this. Your company isn’t more important than an employee’s family or personal wellness. Yes, their job is extremely important, but the company’s needs don’t supersede the needs of an employee’s well-being.
When an employee is made to feel like they won’t be able to get ahead or even keep their job if they’re not grinding out work day and night, it encourages toxic productivity. However, when an employee is encouraged to take time off – or forced to with mandatory vacation – they’re able to recharge and come back to work with renewed energy and fresh ideas.
Offering flexible hours and remote work opportunities to emphasize the importance of getting out of the office will help your team find more balance. Be sure to demonstrate that taking breaks is a good thing by taking regular ones yourself. Managers and HR pros need regular breaks and vacations, too!
2. Don’t reward toxic productivity
If you have a team member who consistently puts in 55 hours or more per week, don’t reward that behavior. It’s great they’re so committed to the company and to doing a good job, and it’s only natural to want to reward someone for going above and beyond for the business.
However, rewarding them or publicly lauding how many hours they’re putting in will make it seem like everyone should be putting in that many hours. It’ll certainly encourage the employee to continue overworking.
Of course, you don’t want to make the employee feel as though they’re doing a bad job, either. Invite them to a one-on-one meeting to thank them for their hard work, then suggest they take a short vacation or a long weekend. Share with them the science about why taking vacations improves productivity, and help to pinpoint why they’re overworking themselves.
Is too much work being assigned? Do they feel like they’re competing with their peers? Did they come from a previous work environment that expected this type of workaholic behavior? Are they picking up the slack for other team members?
Let them know that while you appreciate their dedication, wellness and work-life balance is also valued at your company. Offer to work with them on creating some personal goals unrelated to the company to give them something else to focus on.
3. Management must set an example
Toxic productivity isn’t just about employees. The entire team, and especially management, should display a healthy work ethic, and management must lead by example. A “do as I say, not as I do” attitude is detrimental to your company culture, as it reveals the culture to be a sham. If leadership doesn’t practice what they preach, why should the team listen to them?
The leaders of the company must set the tone. If employees see their managers constantly active on Slack after working hours and biting off more than they can chew, employees will believe that’s what’s expected of them.
Wellness and work-life balance must be prioritized from the top down. Your team needs to see their managers and HR pros clock out when the day is done. Only then will they feel comfortable doing so themselves.
4. Set realistic goals and expectations
We’re not saying your company’s goals shouldn’t be ambitious. Fortune favors the bold, after all, and it’s important to always strive for continuous improvement. However, setting goals that can never be accomplished repeatedly is stressful and drains employee morale. The team never gets to sit back and congratulate each other on a job well done. Never reaching goals will reduce your team’s motivation, leading to employee disengagement.
Your goals must consider your team’s capacity. What can employees realistically accomplish within the agreed upon time frame? By setting realistic goals and expectations, employees won’t feel like they need to be working 24/7 to accomplish what’s asked of them. Instead, they can consistently feel proud of themselves and each other.
Achieving goals regularly improves team morale and prevents toxic productivity from developing in the first place, as employees can feel confident they can complete their assigned work during regular working hours.
5. Support wellness initiatives
It’s important that your team knows it’s not only OK to take breaks to focus on wellness
it’s encouraged! Taking breaks makes you more productive, not less. Healthy employees are happy employees, and happy employees are productive employees, so supporting wellness initiatives can generate great returns for your business.
For example, you can make vacation days mandatory, offer additional balance days off of work or run team building events focused on wellness, such as walking in a local park, yoga or meditation class.
You could reward team members who prioritize their own wellness or offer to pay for an employee’s choice of wellness activity, such as an exercise class, new running shoes, a step counter, a meditation app and so on.
Encourage employee wellness in multiple ways so employees don’t start to believe the only way they can improve their performance is to work more. Everyone’s performance at work is heavily influenced by their home life and their health. Supporting wellness initiatives prevents toxic productivity by reminding employees that their health is a top concern; therefore, to do well at your company and get ahead, they must prioritize their own health and wellness.
6. Build balance into the company culture
Wellness initiatives and realistic goals aren’t just a one-time thing. To avoid toxic productivity, a wellness mindset must be ingrained in the company culture.
Continue to prioritize and hone your initiatives. Regularly ask for feedback from team members about what’s working and what isn’t. How can your company, and you as their HR pro, do more to support and facilitate their wellness?
Don’t let wellness fall by the wayside. Embed it deep within your company culture so that it becomes synonymous with your business. Not only will this give your company a great reputation and attract talent, but it will ensure toxic productivity never rears its ugly head. It’s much easier to prevent toxic productivity than to eradicate it once it’s taken hold of your team.
Addressing toxic productivity when it’s already a part of your company culture
Of course, unless your DeLorean is equipped with a flux capacitor and your name is Marty McFly, you can’t go back in time. If toxic productivity has already entered your workplace, it’s going to be more difficult to snuff it out. However, there are still effective steps you can take to rid your company of its toxic positivity mindset.
1. Admit the issue aloud and take ownership
Business leaders and managers must take ownership of the issue. After all, they allowed it to happen (or perhaps even encouraged it to begin with.) Your team must know it’s not their fault this has happened. Next, leaders must say what they’ll do to fix the problem and change for the better.
HR pros can facilitate this conversation. It’s not about animosity or playing the blame game; it’s about accountability and continuous improvement. Before the situation can be rectified, it must first be acknowledged publicly.
2. Encourage open communication
Open communication is key to moving forward. Remember, it’s not about playing the blame game. Leadership has already taken responsibility. Why has a toxic productivity mindset infected the workplace? What about the workplace isn’t working? Is too much being asked of the team? What wellness initiatives would improve the lives of employees?
If your workplace is already suffering from toxic productivity, it’s very likely that your team members may feel like they can’t communicate openly. Be sure to offer suggestions to get the ball rolling. Would the team benefit from more vacation days, mandatory vacation, balance days, flexible hours or work from home options? If team members are still resistant to sharing, let them know they can do so anonymously by writing a note they can place in a suggestion box.
This isn’t a one-and-done process, so don’t stop there. Meet with team members regularly and ask for consistent, constructive feedback about what’s working and what isn’t, and continue to monitor your progress.
3. Provide support and resources to move forward
To rid your workplace of toxic productivity, you need to come up with a plan. What specifically will be different? How will the business and managers support the team in this effort? How will the company prioritize employee wellness based on company resources and the requests of employees?
Make your plan specific and realistic, and acknowledge it will take time to improve the workplace. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the toxic productivity mindset didn’t show up out of the blue. Be open to trying new strategies. If something works, excellent! If it doesn’t, assess and move on to the next idea. Consistently remind the team about the importance of their own wellness, lead by example, and ask for feedback at every turn.
Keeping toxic productivity out of the workplace
Toxic productivity occurs when your team members believe they must constantly be “on” and working every moment of the day and night in order to prove their worth and dedication to the company. It’s insidious and tough to spot, as productivity is essential to an organization’s success. When an employee is being extremely productive, you may not notice the toll it’s taking on their well-being and job satisfaction.
Working 24/7 isn’t sustainable, and the more an employee pushes themselves to pull all-nighters and skip family dinners, the less productive they’ll be and the more at risk they are of burning out.
To prevent toxic productivity from ever getting a foothold within your workplace, you must encourage work-life balance by making it clear employees should never sacrifice their wellness just to get one more thing done. And if toxic productivity is already there, business leaders must hold themselves accountable and lead by example by taking breaks, working reasonable hours, seeking continuous feedback and prioritizing their own wellness.
The HRMorning website is filled with tools and resources to help HR professionals just like you build happy, healthy and productive teams. If you enjoyed this article, check out our ultimate guide to employee recognition.