Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

Toxic Productivity in Young Adults: The Mental Health Causes and Consequences

Reading Time: 6 minutes

We live in a culture that prides itself on hard work and productivity. Neither of those things is inherently bad. But when you’re driven to be productive nonstop at the expense of your physical and mental health, you’re likely experiencing toxic productivity.

Setting realistic goals and working to accomplish them produces satisfaction and increases feelings of self-worth. Productivity of this kind is healthy. It enhances your life. But toxic productivity detracts from your life because it controls it.

Key Takeaways

  • Toxic productivity is the drive to be productive all the time—not just at work, but in every area of life.
  • Signs of toxic productivity include feeling guilty for taking breaks and prioritizing your to-do list over your health and relationships.
  • Toxic productivity can be a coping mechanism that helps people avoid painful feelings associated with past trauma.
  • Making time for self-care and loved ones will help you be more productive, not less.

What Is Toxic Productivity in Young Adults?

The pressure to get into good colleges, land desirable jobs, and progress up the corporate ladder can be intense. Immersed in the millennial hustle culture, some young adults feel the need to work full tilt from sunrise to sunset. As well, more young people than ever work remotely. As a result, the tendency to be in productivity mode all the time has increased because the boundaries between people’s professional and personal lives have blurred. Combine that with the American work ethic and it’s no surprise that toxic productivity is on the rise.

Young adults suffering from toxic productivity lose all ability to maintain work-life balance. They pull all-nighters, avoid free time, and overload their schedules to ensure they stand out among their peers. Their do-more-and-more lifestyle is driven by the belief that throwing all of themselves into work, school, hobbies, and their personal brand is the only way to achieve success.

However, young adults who consistently push recreation, friendships, self-care, and family life to the back burner typically end up straining their relationships, their emotional well-being, and their physical health.

Do I Have Toxic Productivity? 10 Signs You’re Doing Too Much

  1. Prioritizing work over health (working long hours with little rest, skipping meals, eating fast food on the go, or not exercising due to lack of time)
  2. Feeling guilty for taking a break (when downtime produces anxiety)
  3. Engaging in round-the-clock multi-tasking
  4. Only focusing on tasks with a clear objective
  5. Constantly comparing yourself to others
  6. Never feeling satisfied with your work (a sign of perfectionism)
  7. Frequently feeling irritable and tired
  8. Losing interest in activities and hobbies you used to enjoy
  9. Neglecting personal relationships
  10. Working to avoid uncomfortable feelings or dealing with personal problems

What Causes Toxic Productivity?

Living in a country that glorifies constant doing as the route to success means all Americans are at risk of toxic productivity. Sometimes referred to as “action bias,” toxic productivity can arise due to various factors, including:

Remote work

The occupational phenomenon of COVID-19 seems to have increased rather than decreased the trait. A study from Prodoscore, an employee visibility and productivity intelligence software company, showed a five percent increase in productivity from May to August of 2020 vs. May to August of 2019. Rather than take it easy because they worked from home, remote workers began working 42 percent more on Saturdays and 24 percent more on Sundays than before the pandemic. Experts suggest the unspoken assumption that people should be available day or night when working remotely may be to blame.

Underlying distress

The roots of toxic productivity go deeper, however. Being productive all the time takes our minds off thoughts it would rather not think. It also distracts us from feeling emotions we would rather not feel or aren’t ready to confront. In that sense, toxic productivity can become a coping mechanism that helps young adults keep unwanted thoughts and feelings at bay.

Childhood conditioning

Toxic productivity may be more prevalent in young people who had difficult childhoods, grew up in poverty, or shouldered adult responsibilities at an early age. As well, children who received the message that they were unique or better than others may feel the need to be productive at all times to maintain their specialness in their parents’ or others’ eyes.

Imposter syndrome

Another cause of toxic productivity is imposter syndrome, which is common among perfectionists and individuals with high-functioning anxiety. People who suffer from imposter syndrome are plagued with self-doubt. They don’t trust their skills and abilities. Working far harder than necessary to meet unreasonable self-imposed expectations can cause toxic productivity.

Is Toxic Productivity a Trauma Response?

Trauma can be defined as an emotionally disturbing or life-threatening event (or series of events) producing long-lasting detrimental effects on an individual’s well-being. To avoid the anxiety, depression, and other painful feelings created by trauma and PTSD, people may try to self-medicate or numb their pain.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms for trauma can include abusing alcohol, drugs, sex, food, shopping, and more. Toxic productivity can be one of those coping techniques. That’s because constant busyness serves as a distraction. When unwanted emotions arise, diving into volunteer or work projects­—even cleaning the house or intense exercising—can drown out painful thoughts and emotions.

The Consequences of Toxic Productivity on Your Mental Health and Relationships  

There is little formal research on the consequences of toxic productivity, in part because it isn’t an official clinical diagnosis. However, the consequences of workaholism and perfectionism are well documented. Feeling physically and mentally depleted, exhausted, unmotivated, irritable, and stressed—otherwise called burnout—is a common result of living in overdrive. Burnout and stress are linked with higher rates of depression and anxiety

Another consequence of toxic productivity can be insomnia. Trouble sleeping can stem from adrenal fatigue when the body is on the go to the extreme. And sleep deprivation can make mental health issues worse.

Interpersonal conflicts can also ensue as a result of toxic productivity. Family and significant others eventually feel alienated and unimportant. When friends and family routinely fall to the bottom of your priority list, relationships become strained. And skipping this time together in favor of work means you miss out on the beneficial effects of positive social connections.

7 Ways to Combat Toxic Productivity

It’s a misconception that we need to burn the candle at both ends 27/4 to perform at our best. In fact, just the opposite is true. Without adequate nutrition, rest, and quality time with loved ones, our mental health suffers. Our physical health does, too. Here are some ways to combat toxic productivity to produce more desirable outcomes in all areas of life:

Set clear boundaries between work and personal time

Restore your work-life balance. Pick a point of separation between your work and personal time and stick to it. It may a specific time on the clock or just before dinner. Turn your cell phone off or put it in another room, with the ringer off.

Build breaks into your schedule

Take coffee and stretching breaks. Add 10- or 15-minute buffers before and after meetings to give you time to prepare and decompress.

Make time to do nothing

Find time each day (or at least a few times each week) to unplug completely. Go for a walk. Meditate. Lie in the grass and look at the clouds. Doing nothing helps you return to work refreshed.

Breathe and reevaluate

Not everything needs to be handled or resolved immediately. Breathe. Consider the worst thing that’ll happen if you take a day to think on the matter before jumping into action. If you can take a day, do.

Schedule socializing

Whether you set up a virtual event with a group of friends, a coffee date with a pal, a FaceTime call with your dad, or a date night with your sweetheart, be intentional about spending time with friends and family. Ensure you don’t distance yourself from the ones you love most.

Practice self-care

Take a yoga class. Go on a hike. Play your favorite sport. Soak in an Epsom salt bath. Enjoy a massage. Eat nutritious meals. Get to bed early. Talk to a mental health professional if you need it. Taking care of your body and mind will help you be more productive, not less.

Deal with underlying feelings

When you’re itching to leap into action but don’t absolutely need to, pause. Try to identify the buried thought or feeling that’s causing you to work so much. See if you can sit with your thoughts and emotions (they’ll eventually pass) rather than fall prey to the dangerous trap of toxic productivity day after day.

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Treatment for Issues Underlying Toxic Productivity in Young Adults

Newport Institute’s comprehensive treatment program helps young adults uncover the roots of their toxic productivity, such as anxiety, self-esteem issues, or trauma. Our residential and outpatient treatment programs provide clients with individualized treatment plans as well as life skills training.

Our evidence-based clinical and experiential modalities range from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and EMDR to yoga and meditation. With guidance from clinical and medical experts specializing in this age group, young adults learn to process their emotions, which calms the nervous system. As they heal from past traumas that may contribute to toxic productivity, self-esteem grows. Symptoms like anxiety and imposter syndrome begin to fade.

Contact us today to schedule a mental health assessment, by phone or in person, and learn more about our nationwide young adult treatment locations. We look forward to speaking with you and supporting you or your loved one in taking the next steps toward healing. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is toxic productivity?
  • Do I have toxic productivity?
  • Is toxic productivity a trauma response?
  • How do you overcome toxic productivity?

European J Trauma Dissoc. 2022 Feb; 6(1): 100237.

JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Nov; 1(7): e184493.

Co-Occurring Disorders / February 1, 2023

Newport Institute

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