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The Burnout Epidemic: Tracing the Roots of Toxic Productivity

Source: Griffiths' Guide to the iron trade of Great Britain - Samuel Griffiths, 1873

Do you find yourself working longer hours and believing that being busy is the key to success? If yes, then you may have fallen into the trap of toxic productivity. While working hard and striving to improve oneself is admirable, the pressure to be productive has become toxic. It is a culture that has developed over the past 20 years in the Western world, especially with the advent of the internet, mobile phones, and the introduction of the "hustle culture."

This post explores the origins of toxic productivity and how it has seeped into the corporate world. The Protestant work culture, the American Dream, and capitalist roots are some of the various factors that have contributed to this culture of productivity.

It also explains how this culture has resulted in mental health crises, overwhelm, and burnouts. It is time to stop glorifying the "always on" work culture and learn how to work productively while also having time for rest and relaxation.

Societal Conditioning

As a society, we are conditioned to aim for excellence and reach our full potential. The idea of being the best, showing up, and achieving has been instilled in us since childhood.

While the concept of trying our best and working towards personal growth is noble, the line between healthy and excessive behaviour has become blurred, leading to the rise of toxic productivity.

Toxic productivity is a trap that can lead to burnout, yet companies continue to manipulate their employees to do more, be more, and produce more for their own gain.

To truly understand the roots of toxic productivity, we need to look back into history. In this post, we will explore three major influences that have contributed to the rise of toxic productivity: the Protestant work culture, the American Dream, and capitalist roots.

The Protestant work culture

The Protestant work culture is a value system that believes work is a duty for the benefit of the individual and society. Martin Luther, one of the fathers of the Protestant faith, conceptualised the idea that one should work diligently, no matter how humble the job, to see grace bestowed upon them in heaven. This work ethic merged with the ideology of capitalism, creating a form of productivity ideology.

The American Dream

The American Dream is the belief that anyone can make a successful life regardless of their class structure. It emphasises the values of freedom, equal rights, democracy, and personal happiness. This idea built upon the Protestant work ethic foundation and has been further glorified in Hollywood, Broadway, and thousands of books and magazines that feature personal and business success stories.


Capitalism is an economic, extractive system where production is for profit, and it evolved during the 20th century. It doesn't replenish the resources it uses. People are resources.

Production with the aim of profit has lead to the issues we have today of mass consumption, globalisation and environmental destruction.

When productivity is measured and linked to economic indicators like Gross Domestic Product (GDP), economic growth, and competitiveness, it can become a source of pressure and stress for individuals.

Contributing factors to Toxic Productivity

Toxic productivity is not a new concept, but rather a culture that has developed over the past 20 years, especially in the Western world.

The rise of the internet, constant connectivity through mobile phones, and the "hustle culture" has created a perfect storm for mental health crises, overwhelm, and health issues.

1. The self-help and personal development industry

The self-help and personal development industry has contributed significantly to my own experience of burnout, and therefore, it would be incomplete to exclude it from the list.

Iconic works such as Getting Things Done by David Allen and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey have undoubtedly influenced our perception of productivity. The rise of market capitalism in the 1980s led to the emphasis on growth and profits, which fuelled the demand for personal productivity tools and resources. Thus, the "self-help" craze can be attributed to this economic shift.

2. Societal conditioning

The societal conditioning that surrounds us has infiltrated our daily lives through pithy sayings about success that are rarely questioned. Expressions like "Keep Hustling," "No Pain, No Gain," "Be a Good Girl," and "Be a Productive Member of Society" are deeply ingrained in our cultural programming. Companies also promote this conditioning by insisting that employees put in face time and hours, even if it means sacrificing work-life balance. This approach undermines actual productivity, which should focus on completing essential tasks, rather than clocking in and out aimlessly.

3. Instant gratification

The current technological landscape has normalised the idea of instant gratification, leading us to develop an impatience towards delayed gratification.

We now prioritise immediate but less rewarding gains over future benefits. This mindset has permeated into our expectations from businesses and employers, who are now under immense pressure to deliver quicker results. This trend has contributed to the surge in the productivity industry, leading to the development of various tools like productivity software, planners, calendars, and office aids.

4. The Emergence of the "Hustle Culture"

The ubiquitous hustle culture on social media features people leaving their jobs to create their own businesses, with many achieving 7 or 8 figure earnings. As a result, we feel anxious about not doing the same, or when we do leave our jobs, we anticipate the same online success to come instantly to us. However, when it fails to materialise, we spiral further down into questioning our self-worth.

5. The Trap of Technology

Rather than being a helpful tool, technology has become one of the primary drivers of toxic productivity. The current culture values constant connectivity, encouraging us to always be available and online.

We must take active measures to ensure that we don't fall prey to the addictive nature of technology. We have become so accustomed to the instant gratification and dopamine rush that comes from checking our phones and responding to notifications that we need to physically distance ourselves from our devices.

This phenomenon has only been exacerbated by the concept of FOMO or "The Fear of Missing Out," keeping us tethered to our screens and addicted to the rush of anticipation that comes with each notification, similar to how an addict craves their next fix.

6. The unattainable goal of perfection

The notion that we must achieve a state of perfection is unattainable and unrealistic. It implies that our inboxes will always be empty at the end of the day and that we will instantly reply to every text message. We set deadlines that we know we won't be able to meet and end up feeling like failures when we compare ourselves to others, leading to self-loathing and guilt that affects our self-esteem and mood.

Social media exacerbates this phenomenon by promoting extreme wellness and productivity techniques, hectic workout routines, art-directed images of healthy meals, and elaborate skincare routines. This constant striving for perfection creates a sense of chaos and noise that distracts us from our goals and undermines our perspective.

7. The impact of the Pandemic

It's impossible to ignore the profound impact that the pandemic has had on our work habits. When COVID-19 first hit, millions of people had to adjust to working from home overnight. Suddenly, they had to juggle homeschooling their kids, participating in Zoom meetings, and keeping their homes in order.

This shift to remote work exposed the mistrust that employers had in their employees' ability to manage their own schedules and priorities. The notion that working from home meant slacking off was rampant. Work-life balance went out the window. Employees were now accessible to everyone, all the time. They couldn't switch off from work because they had to demonstrate their availability.

As a result, people imposed their own ideas of productivity and worked longer hours for the same pay. Companies were laying off staff, leaving behind those who were fortunate enough to keep their jobs. These remaining employees felt guilty and worked harder to prove that the decision to keep them on was the right one.

This toxic soup was further exacerbated by people broadcasting on social media all the "extra things" they were doing during the pandemic. The pressure to show how one was using their time by taking up new hobbies or learning new skills became the norm.

However, there's nothing wrong with relaxing and doing nothing. In fact, it's important to take a break and just stare out into the garden without feeling guilty about it.

“The productivity cult has defined American work… for the past few decades, sold by a legion of academics, MBAs, TED talkers, and self-appointed experts as a magic route to professional mastery and personal bliss.”
Sam Blum, Vox Magazine

Your beliefs about your own value and worth

Toxic productivity has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, from work culture to personal life. It has created a sense of guilt when we choose to take a break or engage in leisure activities. Relaxation feels perverse, and being busy is seen as a badge of honour. However, toxic productivity is a path to burnout, and it is time to reclaim our lives.

Many people link their own sense of worth to their output, believing they will be seen as more valuable to their companies if they keep producing more. This is a sure spiral to burning out.

The origins of toxic productivity are rooted in historical values, beliefs, and systems. It is important to recognise these influences to understand the culture of productivity and the pressure to perform.

By identifying the root cause of toxic productivity, we can take steps to break free from this vicious cycle, reclaim our lives, and prioritise our mental and physical health.

Coaching Questions:

Ask yourself...

  1. How has toxic productivity affected your daily life, and what steps can you take to address it?

  2. What are some of the underlying beliefs or assumptions that drive your need for productivity, and are they serving you well?

  3. In what ways have you seen toxic productivity impact those around you, and how can you support them in finding a healthier balance?

  4. What triggers or external factors tend to drive you towards toxic productivity, and how can you develop strategies to mitigate their impact?

  5. How can you reframe your understanding of productivity to prioritise your overall well-being and long-term goals, rather than short-term output?

  6. Are there any particular aspects of your work or personal life that contribute to toxic productivity, and how can you address them effectively?

  7. How can you cultivate a sense of self-compassion and self-care while still striving for productivity and achievement?

  8. How can you communicate with others about the negative effects of toxic productivity, and advocate for a healthier work culture?

  9. In what ways can you build resilience and manage stress in order to avoid falling into patterns of toxic productivity?

  10. What kind of support or accountability structures can you put in place to ensure that you are maintaining a healthy balance between productivity and self-care?

If you're battling with overworking and the negative effects of stress and burnout, maybe it's time to talk.

If you would like to set up a 30-min, no obligation, free consultation, click here.

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