Step aside burnout, it's toxic productivity's time to shine

We unpack the latest byword for extortion under capitalism.

by James Greig
27 May 2021, 7:00am

Sometimes I find it difficult to distinguish between 'genuine phenomenon which has wider implications for our society' and 'the rhetoric of a dozen people I find irritating on social media and a handful of clickbait articles'. 

But “toxic productivity”, the latest byword for extortion under capitalism, really does seem to be cropping up in a lot of places right now. If you haven't noticed it yet, you’ll undoubtedly find it in a TikTok, tweet or infographic any day now. Even Jordan Peterson, “custodian of the patriarchy”, has been getting in on the action. 

The basic premise is that many of us suffer from a quasi-medical condition that forces us to spend all our time working while failing to devote enough time for rest and leisure. It has been described as an “unhealthy desire to be productive at all times, at all costs…. The need to go the ‘extra mile’ even when it's not expected of you”. According to the tenets of toxic productivity, we work too much not because we need the money or due to any external pressures (in fact, much of the writing on the subject is keen to exonerate the influence of employers), but because we have brought it on ourselves through our own disordered thinking. 

“Often the ‘toxic productivitydiscussion focuses on individual behaviours or attitudes,” explains Amelia Horgan, academic and author of the forthcoming book Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism. “There are certainly people who might describe themselves as suffering from this. I don't think they're necessarily wrong, and descriptions like this can be really helpful to individual people in making sense of their stress at work. But I think a focus on individual attitude is looking in the wrong place. If there are harms that come from this way of relating to ourselves, to each other and time, and I think there are, then we need to take them more seriously than expecting we can wish them away through thinking alone. We should really be asking where these attitudes come from. As with ‘burnout’, reaching for these labels can sometimes smoothe away the background conditions that cause them by presenting them as a personal medical problem that is easy to fix.”

Like ‘burnout’ — which got its name in 1973 — toxic productivity might have existed for decades, but in an era of “rise and grind”, it’s become inextricably linked to having an aspirational lifestyle. Yet at its core toxic productivity is really just hustle culture's sullen, resentful younger cousin. Where hustle culture says: “I'm working every hour God sends and this is admirable, evidence of my strong will and worthy of emulation,” toxic productivity is actually saying, “I'm working all the time, and this is too much.” Which is fair enough: over-work is a real problem which impacts most of our lives for the worst, and we should all be entitled to complain about it. 

“It doesn't matter how self-pitying your tone is: you're still contributing to the same culture of over-work that you intend to critique.”

But toxic productivity cannot escape the taint of smug, humble-bragging. The literature available on the subject would back this up. According to a recent article, symptoms of toxic productivity may include scheduling Zoom calls that could have been an email and speaking in jargon in order to make your colleagues think that you're clever; in other words, being a pompous jobsworth. Claiming to suffer from toxic productivity can seem like the modern-day equivalent of telling a job interviewer that your biggest flaw is being too much of a perfectionist. It's not, all things considered, the worst narrative about yourself to put out into the world. If I was burdened with a psychiatric condition that made me unerringly diligent and self-sacrificing, then I would want people to know about this, too, particularly if they were in the position to offer me work. 

But if you are constantly sign-posting how industrious you are, it doesn't matter how self-pitying your tone is: you're still contributing to the same culture of over-work that you intend to critique (or at least, the same culture of posting about over-work). We've surely all seen someone we follow on social media banging on about how busy they are and thought, “shut up”. While this performance is annoying, I can understand the appeal of viewing myself as a martyr to a problem more interesting than my own poor time management. Sometimes when I'm working late, I feel the temptation to post a grim-faced selfie with the caption “still at it!” to let everyone know what a brave little boy I am. But I try to resist, knowing that this would be neither interesting nor a bold indictment of capitalism. It would instead just be a whinier version of showing off. 

This cycle of martyrdom encourages us to internalise some ideas about work that are unhelpful at best. The problem of over-work is not caused by the inner workings of our psyches. For the vast majority of people, over-work is closer to an obligation than a compulsion. For every freelance creative worrying they should be listening to a more educational podcast while they're in the bath, there are vastly more people who work too much because they have no choice. This could be because they're underpaid, precariously employed, their boss is a dick, or they work in industries in where long working hours and unpaid overtime are standard. 

According to Amelia, “Sometimes these discussions tend to universalise from the experiences of the young professionals in creative but precarious work, who feel very deeply the need to cultivate and maintain their reputations online. This is different from the reputation management of gig workers who are rated by customers on platform apps. The effort that is required of people claiming universal credit to remain entitled to benefits is different still. The harms of this excess of productivity are distributed differently across society.” It could well be the case that you have zero financial pressure to spend your leisure time doing extra work, but feel compelled to do so anyway. Call me callous, but I don't consider that a particularly sympathetic predicament. 

If there's one argument for toxic productivity that I find persuasive, it's that precarity breeds paranoia. If you're on a zero-hours contract, you might feel a real compulsion to work harder than you need to with the aim of getting more shifts. But while this could be said to represent toxic productivity, it isn't a remotely disordered way of thinking. It reflects a real power relation and the potential for real exploitation. If you don't work yourself to the bone, your employer may well pass you over in favour of someone who will. Is this situation really best described as a condition from which you are suffering? Toxic productivity might exist, but I'm not convinced that it exists solely within our brains.

Over-work is a real problem, and it's clearly the case that many people are miserable, stressed and exhausted. There are political solutions, but none of them are quick or easy. “Better job security and more control over shift allocation would make pretty significant differences,” says Amelia. “So many people don't know which hours they will be working next week. We need to fight for more time away from work but also for better time, time that can't be interrupted by work emails or your manager asking you to come in for a shift.” If we want to achieve these better working conditions, then we probably need to go beyond moderating our own attitudes, self-medicating with scented candles or humble-bragging about how busy we are on the internet.

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mental health
Gen Z