Workplace Wellbeing: Rest more to work better and strike the right balance

Our culture glorifies the constant hustle for success which can lead to toxic productivity in the workplace
Workplace Wellbeing: Rest more to work better and strike the right balance

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Aoife O’Brien tends to prioritise work over everything else in her life.

“It’s because being busy makes me feel good,” says the 44-year-old from Dublin. “But it can get to the stage where I can even neglect to take care of my health or to spend time with loved ones.”

Happier at Work podcaster Aoife O'Brien
Happier at Work podcaster Aoife O'Brien

She first noticed this tendency upon founding her business and podcast,, in 2019.

“Until then, I’d worked in the corporate world where there was always someone else to pick up the slack if I was sick or on holidays, but when you’re self-employed, there’s always more to be done,” she says.

She continued doing more and more until friends began commenting that they never saw her anymore. That’s when she realised she might be suffering from toxic productivity.

Dr Anne Kehoe, president of the Psychological Society of Ireland, says it feels good to be productive.

“Most of us get a lot of our self-esteem from the sense of efficiency that comes with achieving something. It becomes unhealthy when there’s a drive to constantly accomplish more, to push ourselves to be productive at the expense of our physical and mental health.”

Working constantly is not necessarily the same as being overworked.

“There are people in jobs where too much is asked of them, which isn’t a choice on their part,” says Kehoe. “Toxic productivity involves choosing to push ourselves to achieve more and more to the extent that it’s damaging our wellbeing.”

Toxic productivity can also spill over into other areas of life.

“People can ask too much of themselves when it comes to exercise, for example,” says Kehoe. “They can’t just go for a run. They have to train for a marathon. Or they can’t sit down to relax because they feel guilty for not using that time to work towards a goal. It’s not realistic or even possible to continue like this for an extended period of time. If you try, you’ll end up burning out.”

Yet our culture glorifies the constant hustle for success, with the likes of businessman Elon Musk posting that nobody ever changed the world by working a mere 40-hour week.

“We celebrate business moguls who boast about how much work they do while getting by on little sleep and lots of coffee,” says Kehoe.

Some personalities are more prone to toxic productivity than others, perfectionists in particular, says Kehoe.

O’Brien can see this in herself.

“I’m an overachiever by nature and like to bring my all to everything I do,” she says.

Uncertain times

Associate professor of work and organisational psychology at the University of Limerick, Dr Deirdre O’Shea, believes toxic productivity can be a response to living in uncertain times.

“We find uncertainty stressful,” she says. “It throws what we perceive to be meaningful into question. Take the pandemic, for example. When we weren’t able to go to work or see our friends, we lost much of what gave us meaning and purpose. That’s an unsettling feeling and we wanted to distract ourselves from it. Some people did that by throwing themselves into being productive, whether that was achieving more at work or learning how to make sourdough bread, as many did in lockdown.”

Such distraction can be healthy in moderation.

“It only becomes problematic when we experience negative effects,” says O’Shea. “We all know people who work long hours but enjoy their work so much that it’s never an issue for them. But there are others who end up feeling physically exhausted, emotionally depleted, disconnected from those around them and cynical about life. Those are red flags indicating that something needs to change.”

O’Shea believes change starts with awareness.

“We must ask ourselves why we feel the need to push ourselves like this. We must question what’s important in our lives. It’s fine if work is what’s most important, but if it’s making us unhappy or unwell, some restrictions have to be put in place.”

Examples of restrictions include setting boundaries around your time.

“There needs to be time for work and for non-work,” says O’Shea. “Hybrid working has blurred that, making it harder for some people to clock out at the end of the day, but rules have to be established.”

Dr Anne Kehoe, president of the Psychological Society of Ireland
Dr Anne Kehoe, president of the Psychological Society of Ireland

Kehoe recommends building breaks into your schedule, such as leaving your desk at lunchtime. “Allow yourself time to sit and collect yourself as you transition between tasks. Set aside time every day when you’re not under pressure or measuring your productivity. Purposefully plan for rest because rest is something we all need.”

You could also get real about goals.

“You can’t be the best in every area of your life without significant cost to yourself,” says Kehoe. “So prioritise what’s most important.”

Managing expectations

O’Shea suggests reframing your view of performance.

“There’s a difference between someone’s maximum level of performance and their typical level, which they can sustain day to day,” she says. “It’s not realistic to expect to perform at maximum all the time.”

She believes we can learn from the example of elite athletes.

“They know that performance ebbs and flows over time, so they identify the two or three races they need to perform best at and train with those in mind. This is something we can all do at work.

“Accountants, for example, know that the end-of-year accounting period will be busy so they should make sure they are prepared for that. They should also build in a recovery period afterwards. We all have those times when we need to perform and times when we need to rest.”

With instant access to emails and work apps, our phones can also contribute to the always-on culture.

“And social media on our phones encourages us to compare ourselves to others and what they appear to be getting done in their lives,” says O’Shea.

“My advice is to turn off work notifications outside of working hours and if possible, to put phones away in the evenings to truly switch off.”

Some find it more difficult than others to change their always-on mode of working.

“It depends on the reasons for your toxic productivity,” says Kehoe. “If your identity is wrapped up in constantly being productive or if you’re distracting yourself from negative feelings, it can be frightening to suddenly stop being busy. Your feelings will be there waiting for you. So start slowly. Make one change at a time and seek support from family, friends or mental health professionals if you need it.”

O’Brien is tackling her toxic productivity.

“I set clear goals now and prioritise my time around them,” she says. “I turn off notifications on my phone at certain times of the day. I use meditation to help keep me calm. All this helps me get things done without getting drawn into working too much.”

Overcoming toxic productivity can be an ongoing process, says Kehoe.

“There are times in all our lives when we don’t put our own needs first,” she says. “But we have to remember that this will take a toll on us if it’s too prolonged. We have to keep an eye on ourselves and when we notice that we’ve become too busy, we should act to balance the human desire for productivity with the equally human need for rest.”

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