Toxic productivity is making workers unhappy, says UN happiness council expert. Here are 3 ways to feel more upbeat

April 17, 2023, 10:47 AM UTC
Businessman on fire working at computer at office desk
“Toxic productivity” is a major cause of chronic stress, burnout, and unhappiness among workers today.

Advances in technology from work phones to emails and laptops have tied employees closer to their jobs than ever over the past two decades.

But work almost always had an end point: Come 6 p.m., it was fairly commonplace to switch off all work-related technology, or leave it at the office and forget about it entirely until the next working day.

“We didn’t have so much access to work and work didn’t have so much access to us,” says Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic and Unlocking Happiness at Work, who sat on the UN’s Global Happiness Council and is currently researching for her next book, Why Work Isn’t Working Anymore.

In recent years, however, tech has become increasingly intrusive in people’s lives outside of the workday.

Not only can workers now check emails on their wrists but, through the pandemic, work-related tech has been forced into most workers’ homes—meaning it’s easier than ever to connect with peers outside of traditional office hours. 

“We’re having this capacity to be working 24 hours a day,” Moss says, claiming that more people than ever are checking in on their work between midnight and 3 a.m. 

She calls this phenomenon “toxic productivity” and claims it’s a major cause of chronic stress, burnout, and unhappiness among workers today. 

For those who feel like they’re always on, Moss has three tips for feeling more upbeat without tossing in the towel on technology and quitting your demanding job. 

Say ‘no’ to things that don’t align with you

With most of society online and showing off their every move, it’s no wonder the acronym FOMO (fear of missing out) has blown up—and it’s having a double-whammy effect on our ability to set boundaries.

Not only are we constantly checking our devices for updates on peers, competitors, and aspirational figures, but, Moss says, it’s also why we are struggling to say no to after-hours work.

Although turning down meetings, projects, and stretch opportunities that intrude on your personal time may feel like career suicide (especially to younger workers), Moss stresses that to be happier and healthier workers, “we have to be better about disconnecting” where possible. 

Before committing to things outside of working hours, she recommends asking yourself: 

  1. Is this a deathbed regret? 
  2. If I say yes to this, am I going to feel really good about it?
  3. Can I do it in alignment with my priorities?

For example, you probably won’t remember turning down a weekly meeting with team members on the other side of the world on your deathbed. But you probably would regret regularly missing out on dinner with your family—if family is your priority.

“It sounds sort of morbid, but just really think about what is it that you want from a value standpoint in your life?” Moss says. “Do you want work to actually add accomplishment, meaning, or engagement in your life? Or do you want it to just be something that fills space and provides financial security?”

There isn’t a right or wrong answer. But by being aware of what you value in life, it’ll then be easier to make decisions based on this.

In the long run, Moss claims, people who master value alignment enjoy increased levels of happiness and optimism, more productive relationships and even a longer life-span.

Have non-work chatter with peers

By working online and being always available, we are more contactable than ever.

Yet despite this newfound ability to connect with team members at any time of the day without moving from a desk, people are lonelier than ever.

“We’re in a social contagion of depression because of how isolated and disconnected we are,” Moss cautions. 

This is exacerbated by the fact that working relationships have become more transactional: Instead of interacting with the various faces you may bump into in the office, from the receptionist to the IT department, remote workers today are primarily in contact with their team members—and mostly about work.

Moss warns that when the criteria of working relationships are that they’re competent and accountable, it’s very “surface-level.” 

“Because now we have these other ways of looking at people for friendship, it’s reducing the depth of connection that we have with people,” she adds, but “long-lasting bonds create safety and contentment.” 

She suggests “bringing some level of joy back to work” by having non-work-related chats with peers, or better yet, meeting in person for lunch. 

Control your controllables

Ultimately it all comes down to control. 

“When you look at the causes of burnout, and you look at why work isn’t working, there’s a lot of things that are out of our control,” Moss says—but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Of course, a bad boss or a toxic work culture that demands you’re always on will have a huge impact on your happiness levels. 

But Moss stresses that the onus on your own contentment isn’t on anyone but yourself.

“We as individuals, have to develop our own psychological fitness. We have to consider that our happiness is our responsibility.”

In addition to setting better boundaries and creating deeper connections to the people you’re working with, she suggests connecting back to the reason why you’re there.

“Just spend some time maybe contemplating what made you want to be in this job in the first place,” she adds. “How do you get back there?”

Then find a way of doing more of those things which gave you that new-job buzz when you started out. 

And if that doesn’t work, revert to tip two: “All the other things we might not be able to control, but we can control the way we form our relationships with people we work with.”

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