${ company.text }

Be the first to rate this company   Not rated   ${ company.score } stars     ${ company.industry}     ${ company.headquarters}


${ getArticleTitle(article) }


${ tag.display_name }


${ getCommunityPostText(community_post) }


${ contributor.full_name }

${ contributor.short_bio }

Jobs For Employers

Join InHerSight's growing community of professional women and get matched to great jobs and more!

Sign up now

Already have an account? Log in ›

  1. Blog
  2. Mental Health
  3. October 27, 2023

How Can We Break Free of Toxic Productivity?

Your worth is not tied to your output

toxic productivity
Photo courtesy of Pavel Danilyuk

Magda is a high-achieving marketing executive. 

Her calendar is a colorful mosaic of meetings, deadlines, and to-do lists, and she prides herself on being the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave. To others, Magda is the epitome of success. But beneath the surface, she’s suffering. Her relentless quest for achievement and productivity has taken a toll on her health, leaving her exhausted, anxious, and on the brink of burnout.

In this scenario, Magda has fallen victim to “toxic productivity”—what career strategist and personal branding specialist Brianne Latthitham defines as the obsessive drive to constantly be producing, regardless of how it may negatively impact mental and physical health, interpersonal relationships, and quality of work. 

Latthitham relates the concept to the law of diminishing returns: “The harder we work without creating space to rest and recharge, the lower the quality of our output, and the more fearful we are that we’re not measuring up to our—or Western society’s—standards of success. Because of this addiction to the dopamine hit we get when we’re being productive or cross something off of our to-do list, it never stops, and neither do we.”

This go-go-go mindset is unsustainable, and it’s dangerous. Let’s talk more about how toxic productivity manifests in the workplace, how it relates to mental health and burnout, and how we can break free from it using boundary-setting and self-care. 

Toxic productivity, mental health, and burnout

Have you ever felt guilty or ashamed for taking a break from working to enjoy a beautiful day outside? Do you struggle to take vacations because you’re worried about your workload when you return? Do you only feel proud of yourself when you’re being productive? If so, you might also have a toxic productivity or hustle culture mindset.

Key signs of toxic productivity include:

  • An obsessive focus on productivity and work output

  • Setting unrealistic expectations and goals

  • Feeling guilty or ashamed when not working

  • Ignoring self-care, rest, and relaxation

  • Neglecting personal relationships and social activities

  • Experiencing chronic stress and anxiety related to work

  • Difficulty taking breaks or vacations without guilt

  • Reduced creativity and innovation due to rigid focus on output

Constantly overworking to the point of neglecting rest is a recipe for poor mental health. Prioritizing working over everything else and pushing yourself past your limits can impair cognitive function, leading to difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and problem-solving. Plus, you’re at a higher risk of a diminished sense of joy and satisfaction in life if you’re pressuring yourself to reach perfectionism at work

“Toxic productivity is a symptom of a much more dangerous issue, which is the underlying belief that your worth as a human being is measured only by output and achievement,” says Latthitham. “This belief, particularly prevalent in self-identified perfectionists and Type A individuals, is often reinforced at both the individual level and the systemic level, and can easily lead to burnout.”

Basically, if your self-worth is tied solely to your productivity levels, feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem are inevitable if your goals aren’t met. This kind of burnout can result in feelings of helplessness, irritability, and a sense of being overwhelmed.

Why are so many intelligent employees at risk of adopting this unhealthy mindset in the first place?

Latthitham says, “In this hyper-capitalist Western society, we are constantly bombarded by media and advertisements that tell us we’re not good enough just as we are. We’ve lost our ability to sit and be still. Being in a state of perpetual mental overstimulation by endless Slack messages, emails, social feeds, and texts is actually making us less productive because in order to cope with the noise, we start multi-tasking.”

When our attention is fragmented, we can’t retain as much information, be creative, or enter a flow state. Ironically, Latthitham says, it’s our addiction to productivity that ends up making us less productive. 

Plus, working professionals nowadays have access to endless productivity tools, like AI chatbots, designed to increase efficiency at work. But Latthitham says, “Instead of using the time they get back to do more things that bring them joy or restore them outside of work, these tools only make them feel like they need to go even faster and increase the volume of their output. The emphasis needs to be on quality, not quantity.”

4 boundary-setting strategies to avoid toxic productivity

Healthy productivity involves setting realistic goals, maintaining a work-life balance, and taking breaks to recharge. Defining and communicating workplace boundaries is especially important in preventing burnout and promoting sustainability in your working habits. Always remember it’s completely okay to seek external help and support when needed.

To establish and enforce boundaries that denounce toxic productivity at work, use these four strategies.

1. Reflect on your priorities

Latthitham says, “If you’re stuck in a cycle of toxic productivity, first, do some deep reflection on what’s driving your need to constantly be doing.” She says it’s important to figure out how much of it is due to external factors including the type of industry you’re in, the culture within your organization, financial stress, or your own internal belief system. Once you understand the motivations behind your drive to produce, you can start to address them in a meaningful way.

2. Learn to say “no”

As a workaholic, saying no can feel anxiety-inducing in itself. But this one simple word can help you manage your workload and remain accountable for the work you already have to focus on.

“I’m big into encouraging my clients to decline unnecessary calendar invites and not feeling a need to over-explain the ‘why’ or apologize for being unable to participate in something that isn't critical to the responsibilities of their job,” says Latthitham. “You don’t have to do everything or be perfect at everything, and embracing this can actually be quite empowering.” 

3. Build real breaks into your day

You need to step away from your desk for more than just a coffee break. “Give yourself permission to take ‘brain breaks’ throughout the day, not just because it will help you to find more creative solutions to challenges, but because you deserve to not have to always be pushing so hard,” Latthitham says. 

On days when you’re on a tight deadline and can’t make the time for a nature walk, try using short mindful breathing exercises. Find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and take a few minutes to practice deep breathing. Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of four, hold for four, and then exhale through the mouth for a count of six. Repeat this several times, focusing solely on the breath. 

4. Allow yourself to underachieve 

Yes—gasp—you read that correctly. “In his book, Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman talks about a radical concept called ‘strategic underachievement,’ which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like,” says Latthitham. “Make the choice to underachieve in the areas that aren’t actually critical to your success, and you’ll experience a wealth of benefits including reduced anxiety and more time for the things that really matter to you, whether that’s relationships, exercise, or being in nature.”

If you feel comfortable, chat with your manager in your next 1:1 about balancing your workload and taking on more tasks that excite you and delegate more of the tasks you struggle with or don’t enjoy to others. Let them know you’re struggling with excessive productivity and you’d like to minimize the amount of time you’re working non-vital tasks.

Read more: Are You a Workaholic? Here’s How to Know

Learning to balance self-care with healthy success

Many women feel immense pressure to "do it all." It can feel difficult to find the right balance between prioritizing self-care and compassion for yourself while also still doing a good job and striving for healthy amounts of success.

“As an advocacy coach and a person who has lived with chronic illness for the past five years, I think [non-disabled] women can learn a lot from the chronic illness community when it comes to self-care and self-compassion,” says Latthitham.

She says two of the most powerful tools in her personal tool belt are:

  • The art of “pacing,” taking breaks and not pushing yourself to the point of over-exertion because it could result in a health flare up. 

  • The concept of spoon theory. “Many individuals living with chronic illness or chronic pain also experience fatigue, and spoon theory is the idea that each morning, we wake up with a finite amount of spoons for the day, where spoons represent energy,” says Latthitham. “Each activity or task, like preparing for a meeting with a client, giving a big presentation, or going to a work event, takes a specific number of spoons. Once you run out of spoons, you’ll have nothing left to give, so you have to wake up each morning being incredibly strategic about how you’re going to use those spoons that day, and remember you are going to need some spoons for things outside of work, like preparing a healthy meal for you and your family or taking a fitness class.”

When you’re goal-setting for success, build self-care into your ambitions and plans. Identify what will help you feel rested and what will re-energize you, and carve out intentional time for both each week while you’re working. Living a balanced life is key to avoiding burnout.

The main takeaway for women, and all employees, should be: Your worth is not solely tied to what you do. Your job and career are just a small piece of what makes up your whole identity as a person. Find what makes you happy—inside and outside of work.

Read more: Aspirational? Here’s Our Guide to Achieving Your Goals

About our expert${ getPlural(experts) }

About our author${ getPlural(authors) }

Share this article

Don't Miss Out

Create a free account to get unlimited access to our articles and to join millions of women growing with the InHerSight community

Looks like you already have an account!
Click here to login ›

Invalid email. Please try again!

Sign up with a social account or...

If you already have an account, click here to log in. By signing up, you agree to InHerSight's Terms and Privacy Policy


You now have access to all of our awesome content

Looking for a New Job?

InHerSight matches job seekers and companies based on millions of workplace ratings from women. Find a job at a place that supports the kinds of things you're looking for.