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The problem with productivity culture is that we aren't robots

Tired freelancer sleeping on her deak
Our culture of productivity can cause burnout, stress and mental health problems. Photo: Getty

Our current work world is obsessed with productivity. From biohacking our diets to taking morning ice baths, we’re almost constantly being bombarded with new, dubious ways to work effectively and get more done.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to be productive, of course. Many of us have certain routines that help us wake up and make the most of our days, whether it’s a morning coffee, exercise or meditation. After all, performing as well as we can — often while juggling a heavy workload — can be key to getting ahead in our careers and paying the bills.

But the problem arises when our need to always be accomplishing something becomes the ultimate priority — no matter what the cost.

Research has highlighted various negative aspects of our culture of productivity. Burnout, a state of chronic stress caused by overwork, is commonplace among workers. Mental health problems are on the rise in the workplace. Rather than empowering people to work to the best of their abilities, our need for productivity can stoke insecurities and negatively impact our wellbeing.

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“It’s potentially harmful to our physical and mental health because it gets in the way of what makes us healthy, happy and high-functioning humans,” explains Katie Driver, a member of the Life Coach Directory. “It squeezes out the pockets of time when we move around, daydream, make healthy meals, chat to friends, enjoy ourselves and become fully rounded humans. If we can’t keep up, we blame ourselves for being ‘only human’ instead of celebrating the fact.”

Take, for example, a desk-based professional working for a firm that prizes productivity, Driver says. Employees may end up spending too long sitting down, get less exercise, less fresh air and struggle to sleep well as a result.

“Mentally, they’re likely to feel a constant pressure to visibly perform, to prioritise measured tasks rather than exercising their judgement about what would be most useful, to hide errors without learning from them, and to keep working at the expense of everything else,” Driver says. “Over time, the sedentary lifestyle combined with a permanently stressed state becomes a toxic cocktail, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety and more.”

Even in our spare time, there is growing pressure to spend it trying to improve ourselves. Relaxation, despite it being essential for our health, is often demonised — and we end up feeling guilty for taking time off for ourselves. Many of us find it difficult to switch off unless we have something productive to show for it.

So where did this harmful culture of productivity come from — and how can we keep our work ethic healthy?

Since the 1970s, economies in the UK, US, and Canada have embraced neoliberalism, an ideology commonly used to refer to an economic system in which the “free” market is extended to every crevice of our public and personal lives. It’s a theoretically merit-based system that rewards high grades, good degrees, good jobs, but punishes a lack of competitiveness and failure.

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With fewer protections, employees are under pressure to perform in this ultra-competitive environment. And being as productive as possible — with quantifiable results — is seen to reduce the risk of failure.

However, what we think of as being productive in the workplace — working longer hours, taking fewer breaks, taking less time off — has actually been proven to be counterproductive.

“Our ‘non-productive’ time is actually vital for productivity,” Driver explains. “When we stop working flat out, our brains are freed up to reflect, consolidate, imagine new possibilities and do all the other amazing things they’re capable of. Things like learning and memories are enhanced after rest — and may not happen if we ‘power through’ our days. New ideas and connections form when we daydream, not when we’re hunched over a screen.”

The obsession with productivity fails to recognise that all these other things are not only desirable in their own right, they also make us more productive because we show up to work each day refreshed, inspired and purposeful.

“I think the productivity culture has become more prominent recently because of an increasing focus on short-term results and marginal gains,” she adds. “Alongside this, it’s become increasingly easy to track the minutiae of an employee’s day, especially when people aren’t trusted to get on with the work themselves.

READ MORE: The psychology behind why we love routines and schedules

The problem is, the quality and effectiveness of thinking or creativity aren’t things you can easily track or measure.

“When someone is hard at work thinking through a problem, it doesn’t look like they’re doing anything — there are no keystrokes to be tracked, no calls being made,” Driver says. “Nor do firms spend much time thinking about what people might need in order to think well — it’s simply assumed that it will happen.”

⁠Careers clinic
⁠Careers clinic