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How to Prevent Toxic Productivity and Improve Workplace Culture

Every employer should strive to have a productive workforce, and it’s important that the environment you cultivate engages and brings out the best in employees. However, there’s a fine line between staff feeling motivated and challenged vs. anxious and burned out. Toxic productivity might produce excellent results for a few months, but there are healthier ways to run a business.

To help keep your workplace healthy, it’s good to know the definition of toxic productivity, the signs of toxic productivity in employees and some tips for cultivating a culture of positive productivity.

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What is toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is working too hard and prioritizing work over self-care and relationships. It can be difficult to imagine productivity having negative implications, but it can become toxic if it’s impacting someone’s health or personal life. However tempting it might be to encourage employees who are prone to toxic productivity to push harder because they’re achieving results, it’s important to think of the long-term implications.

Burnout is a real thing, and it’s common in workplaces where people tend to work too hard. Keeping an eye out for signs of toxic productivity and taking steps to manage it can help ensure your team is healthy, happy and productive all year long.

Signs of toxic productivity culture in the workplace

Let’s look at some signs of toxic productivity at work:

  • Employees regularly work 12+ hour shifts without breaks or rest
  • People come into work at the weekends
  • Managers send digital communications outside of working hours
  • No one takes vacations
  • Staff who take a sick day are looked down on, even in genuine instances
  • Team members express guilt or shame if they don’t go over and above the call of duty
  • There’s tension and unhealthy competition between staff members

Employees who seem to have endless energy and are ready to go the extra mile may exist in your company, but as a leader, you must ensure they’re well looked-after and aren’t neglecting any other areas of their lives. It’s also not helpful for you or your team to expect this behavior from all employees, as can be setting you up for disappointment and them for failure.

Toxic productivity often arises when the distribution of duties is uneven. As such, knowing your team and how to play to their strengths can help you prevent a toxic culture in the workplace.

Crafting thorough job descriptions, being discerning during the interviewing process and using onboarding to instill company culture can help ensure everyone contributes positively and sustainably. However, if every employee displays signs of burnout, you may need to reassess the head count and hire more staff.

7 tips for cultivating positive productivity

Positive productivity is the opposite of toxic productivity, and it’s possible to cultivate it even if your current environment has signs of toxicity. Below are some tips to help you and your team maintain high performance while preventing unhealthy productivity.

1. Lead by example

Keep in mind that the leadership team has the biggest influence over how employees behave at work. Writing company values, job descriptions, a code of conduct and other policies is only half the work it takes to level up company culture. You and your managers should live and breathe those values and set the example by displaying the attitudes and best practices you want to see from the wider workforce.

2. Design company culture intentionally

Leaders should take the reins and intentionally design company culture, including expectations regarding productivity. It involves more than writing out core values and having a meeting to tell everyone what they are. As often as possible, weave values and best practices into briefings, meetings and group and individual training sessions to help ensure they’re consistently reinforced and employees remember them.

3. Align workflows with job descriptions

It’s up to the leadership team to ensure duties are appropriately delegated to employees. Avoid adding on extra tasks that aren’t included in their job descriptions, which can set them up for inefficiency and burnout. Likewise, don’t hand out duties that are beyond people’s job scopes, which can increase frustration and lead to mistakes — even if it saves time in the short-term.

Be sure to audit and update job descriptions on a regular basis to ensure everyone’s responsibilities are realistic, play to their strengths and are aligned with organizational goals.

4. Encourage detachment from technology

Avoid sending messages or emails to employees outside of work hours, and encourage them to do the same. If you’re in a hybrid or remote work environment, technology can make it especially hard to have a healthy work/life balance, which is essential. Try to make sure everyone has a separate work and personal phone number, and set parameters and boundaries around working hours, calls and emails.

5. Pay people well

Working hard and not being well compensated can quickly leave people feeling like they’re being taken advantage of and cause burn out. Highly motivated employees might begin their career with your company wanting to impress and be super productive, and they could commit to a ton of responsibilities.

If they’re inexperienced or not very assertive, they may be happy to work more for less pay. However, over time, they might realize they’re doing more than other people or see that others doing the same work get paid more.

Paying employees well and ensuring they’re not working for less than they’re worth can help inspire loyalty and confidence.

6. Focus on team building

Toxic productivity can be particularly damaging to morale and collaboration if the team isn’t well bonded. This can occur if employees feel like they’re pitted against each other or their jobs are under threat from their colleagues. To help prevent this, you can organize regular team building activities in the workplace as well as social events outside of work. When your staff are close and care about each other, they’re more likely to work collaboratively and ask for help when needed.

7. Talk about the company’s successes

Just like you should shape the culture of your company intentionally, you should actively construct and communicate your company narrative to employees. It’s a good idea to mostly focus on the successes and wins, while carefully addressing any setbacks from the perspective of how to improve in the future. If you don’t, employees are likely to construct their own narratives, which could be more extreme and negative than reality. If they feel like the company isn’t doing well, they might push themselves too hard and burn out.

Striking the balance between healthy and toxic productivity

The best way to ensure productivity in your workplace remains healthy is to be crystal clear about job requirements and responsibilities. By delegating duties thoughtfully, you can manage each employee’s output. To support this, construct your core values so they outline exactly how you expect employees to conduct themselves at work, and ensure you have policies in place that promote a healthy work/life balance.

Toxic productivity FAQ

What’s the difference between healthy and toxic productivity?

Working hard and efficiently and being harmfully productive aren’t the same. If someone is consistently going over and above, hitting targets, keeping clients happy and enjoying a rich and varied personal life, they’re fine. However, when an employee isn’t able to switch off, seems unhealthy and is overly focused on work, toxic productivity could be the cause.

Are toxic productivity and burnout related?

Yes, the end result of toxic productivity is usually burnout. Most people aren’t able to consistently maintain an extremely high level of performance at work. That’s why it’s so important to design job roles so employees work hard steadily, without huge peaks and troughs in workflows. In some cases, toxic productivity could be a sign an employee has underlying issues such as anxiety or depression.

How can leaders reverse toxic productivity culture?

The most important first step for leaders attempting to turn around a toxic work environment is to recognize the role they play in cultivating it. Then, work as a team to determine the issues and plan the measures needed to change the situation. This may involve having one-on-one chats with employees, readjusting work schedules, updating company culture documentation and enforcing boundaries about communication outside working hours.

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