Research & Case Studies

The speed with which businesses around the world have adapted to the new virtual working model is quite remarkable. Companies have managed to continue leading effective teams, maintain high levels of productivity, implement new digital systems – many even showing tremendous growth in turnover. Considering that an event of the nature of a global pandemic hit, it’s reasonable to wonder how this level of success was possible for so many businesses. Let’s talk about toxic productivity in the workplace.

Work-life balance is a notorious struggle at the best of times for executives, management, and employees alike. In many cultures, the myth exists that if you’re not seen to be working at all times, you’re failing. Now that so many of us are working remotely, from home, the boundaries between work and life have become less visible than ever before.

As a leader, manager, or team coach it is crucial to recognize the impact that remote work and the pandemic has had on employees. While there is an obvious need to keep the business wheels in motion, taking time to understand the emotional well-being of the people with action plans to combat their pain points is equally important. As levels of burnout rise around the world, looking after the mental health of employees is being recognized as essential to business sustainability. At the core of it, a well looked-after team allows for a high-performance team.

What is toxic productivity?

To put it most simply, toxic productivity, like workaholism, is the unhealthy need to be constantly productive. It’s placing more attention on what one didn’t achieve in a day, instead of what was achieved. In today’s society, we still see people applauded for staying up all night working to meet a deadline, rewarded for putting their personal needs aside to succeed at all costs. Rarely do we see someone being cheered on for meeting reasonable goals, being fully present, clear-thinking and well-rested.

Toxic productivity affects people in the way that they will feel guilty whenever they are not working. Even having completed a full day of tasks, they tend to beat themselves up for not doing more than they did. Additionally, companies or managers may be the ones expressing toxic productivity towards their employees – concerning themselves primarily with numbers and results – and expecting their people to do “whatever it takes” to meet their expectations for success.

Why has toxic positivity recently become so prevalent?

Since employees now spend their working and free time in the same physical space, they can experience a struggle when trying to separate their career from their personal lives. While driving or commuting to and from work was once a frustrating pain point for many, it provided a useful mental barrier between home and work.

Another reason is the unreasonable expectations that can come from remote work being largely unsupervised. Managers may be unaware of how much their people can realistically achieve in a day. Since they cannot physically see them working outside of meetings, they may assume that remote employees have been wasting time if they do not fulfil all expectations.

In addition to the disconnect, leading teams that have recently transitioned to a remote environment in itself is not easy. It’s important to remember that this is new for everyone. Team coaches need to be aware of these facts to effectively address emerging issues in the teams they work with and help them co-discover a more sustainable solution.

The psychological factors at play

When placed in an uncertain and stressful environment with unexpected threats, one can easily feel out of control. This can lead to a default response of focusing on what they can control and what makes them feel valued. The need to add value is especially understandable when considering the number of people laid off during the pandemic. They feel lucky to have a job (even sometimes guilty) and strive to work harder so that they don’t lose it.

But what’s wrong with being more productive?

While toxic productivity may provide excellent and above-average results for a short time, this is completely unsustainable. When someone starts to equate their value with productivity and self-optimization, they run the risk of not meeting ever-increasing expectations. The outcome is a decreasing sense of worth and value, eventually leading to burnout.

Burnout is difficult to recover from, and if an entire team has a toxic productivity mindset, it may become a vicious cycle to overcome. A far more sustainable solution is to ensure that the team understands the importance of being well-rested to continue to do their best work for the foreseeable future. This message must be emphasized with the teams you work with.

Combating toxic productivity in the workplace

With the understanding that leading high-performance teams begins with well-rested team members, the value proposition for combatting toxic productivity in the workplace becomes apparent. Thankfully, the signs of toxic productivity are simple to identify. These include:

  • Fatigue or exhaustion in the mornings
  • Overwhelm
  • Lack of self-care (not eating, sleeping, or even using the bathroom)
  • Feelings of guilt when not working
  • Not taking breaks

Education goes a long way

Take the time to check in with team members and educate them about the effects of toxic productivity on their mental and physical health. Offer training in mindfulness or breathwork. The reward of taking care of the personal well-being of your team members are are better performance and greater sustainability of the business. In the end, we are all in this together – all of us are on high alert and each has only one body to sustain us – let’s take care of ourselves and each other.

Let’s Talk About Toxic Productivity in The Remote Workplace

Photo by Andy White on Unsplash

Laura Hauser, Fielding Graduate University

Hauser’s article summarizes her empirical research and offers a new framework for coaching teams in organizations.

The article focuses on the behaviors of a team coach as well as what influences the coach’s choices of different roles while the coach works with the team. Hauser identified and categorized various role behaviors used which in turn influenced the choices for intervention when coaching a team. The result is the creation of a new methodological framework for use by researchers and practitioners.

July 2014 Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture 5(2)

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