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Hustle Culture & the emergence of Toxic Productivity

Toxic Behaviours can be explained as behaviours that are harmful to you, your goals, and your daily life. Living in a culture which places so much value on productivity, rarely do we celebrate when people are present, rest well, or set and meet reasonable goals. If you think over it, we reward the best students, we’re impressed when others pull all-nighters, we hype up the entrepreneurs who boast about their work ethic and lack of sleep. The problem with this approach is that this obsession with productivity in a world which idolises ‘Hustle Culture’ can end up becoming toxic. While toxic productivity might be a new catchphrase, it has in fact been around for decades, but in this era of ‘rise and grind’ and ‘wake up and hustle’, it has gotten deeply linked to having an aspirational lifestyle. However, the time has come to say goodbye to toxic productivity.

The term ‘Burnout’ was coined in 1973, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before that. It was later in 2019 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially added burnout as an occupational phenomenon to its International Classification of Diseases. When that happen, many people felt that this was extremely relatable, because we all know too well the experience of working to the point of mental and physical deterioration. While this might seem like a new phenomenon, we have been striving for productivity for centuries. The earliest mentions of the concept of ‘productivity’ can be found in the writings of economist Adam Smith, as early as 1776. Going further, Benjamin Franklin is said to have come up with the first to-do list in 1791. The daily planner came out in 1850. But as technology evolves, our obsession with productivity has increased. For the best way to witness this, do a simple Google search on ‘productivity’ and you will get over 562,000,000 results! In this piece we will try and explore the origins of toxic productivity in the times of hustle culture and what are the implications of this.

Toxic Productivity is catching up as not just a catch-phrase for workaholism, but also as an unhealthy lifestyle. It is essentially an unhealthy desire to be always productive, at all costs, even if it means sacrificing your Mental Health and wellbeing. It’s the need to always go the “extra mile” at work or at home, even when it’s not expected of you or something you can do at that time. The thing which makes toxic positivity problematic is that it doesn’t really go away, even after your task is completed. It almost makes you feel that no amount of effort you put in is ever enough. Toxic productivity can make you feel like a complete failure if we’re not constantly ‘doing’ things and it makes us judge ourselves each day for what we haven’t accomplished as opposed to focussing on what we have.

Hustle Culture is all about how “busy” one seems to be and propagates and applauds a round-the-clock lifestyle, with every hour being spent doing something ‘productive’ and us giving ourselves a pat on the back for juggling a million things at one time - the more the merrier! Taking a break is sadly looked at as something which is a sign of weakness or personal failure weak. Taking care of our Mental Health and wellbeing-care is frowned upon. Hustle culture isn't as great as it is made out to be. You may work round-the-clock, but at what cost? You end up neglecting your sleep, nutrition, rest and health. Research shows that those who are living such a lifestyle have had significantly more depressive and anxiety symptoms and worse sleep quality compared to those who maintained an eight-hour work-day. Japan, a country known for its detail-oriented work and workaholic culture, has reported several deaths caused due to stress and over-work and there is also the case of the 30 year old journalist, Miwa Sado who overworked herself to death after logging in 159 hours of overtime. Unfortunately, as there are several successful people who promote such a lifestyle it has gained even more popularity, despite how problematic and toxic it is in reality.

Productivity hacks may seem very lucrative but this culture is a dark, sinister world in itself. The dark side of hustle culture comes in the form of toxic productivity which can have several implications for individuals who are falling prey to this. While determination, perseverance and having a never-say-die attitude can be admirable, know that if your work ethic means that you are neglecting your basic human needs like that of having to eat, drink, sleep, or go to the bathroom, then your hard work “ethic” is toxic productivity in disguise. For those with a toxic relationship with productivity, the struggle to be alone with themselves at any time when they are not working or the gaps between one task to another can be hard to cope with as they constantly seek to be occupied for every single waking minute of their lives. Being able to take a break or having a day off can almost be guilt-inducing and more distressing for them. Toxic productivity can also make individuals feel a sense of uneasiness, restlessness or emptiness during moments of stillness, play, or other things which in their mind might be labelled as ‘non-productive’. This culture also promotes unsustainable work habits and the setting of unrealistic goals which can lead to burnout as well. With its deep focus on only looking at hard work (which disguises overwork in many cases!) as a means to achieve goals, individuals neglect a lot of other aspects of their lives. While some might argue that notions of Hustle Culture can keep them motivated to strive harder, it is important to approach this with caution as it can become a dangerous slippery slope leading to obsession and exhaustion.

There has been a significant rise in Toxic Productivity in the times of the pandemic. Wherever we look, people are feeling the pressure to do something truly meaningful with their lives through this time. It would be great if we all could write the next bestseller, reorganise our entire house, learn a new skill, pivot a new business, take every course on entrepreneurship or check things off endless to-do lists, but we need to be very realistic that this need to be productive can be toxic. Remember that quarantine means that people are at home, trying to work, in the middle of a crisis, and yet, we are being flooded on social media with content on how others are using this “extra time” and this can pressurise us to feel inadequate if we can’t keep up. The pandemic is a time filled with fear and uncertainty and it has taken a toll on everyone, in one way or another. That being said, toxic productivity can still sadly push people into expecting that their level of output and productivity would be the same right now as it was before the pandemic began. This makes them ignore the fact that these are not regular times; these are pandemic times. Harbouring such unrealistic expectations can make an already traumatic situation even worse. Expecting the same output from yourself during a crisis is almost like expecting a crop to yield the same harvest after a severe drought. Toxic productivity and hustle culture in that sense have almost made us forget to be realistic!

Whether you call it Toxic productivity, workaholism or hustle culture, they all boil down to the idea of romanticising hard work beyond exhaustion to meet a certain goal. We need to know that productivity isn't a bad thing, but over exhaustion is. If you’ve fallen prey to the hustle culture, there’s a high chance that ironically, you’re cutting your career short by jeopardising your physical and mental health and interpersonal relationships. In such scenarios, know that when your wellbeing is at stake, you want to make “rise and shine” a priority over “rise and grind” - focus on being present and doing your best, that is and will always be enough.


Written by: Yash Mehrotra

September, 2021


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