Marta Tur takes a breath and suddenly tells how it was any other day these past nine months, when she decided to do intensive postgraduate studies at the age of 32 to resume her career as a communicator. She is distressed when she remembers: “I woke up at 6 am to listen to the radio, spent an hour and a half on public transport listening to the news to catch up and not miss anything. When I arrived, I worked in internships, worked more hours than I needed to, had lunch in a noisy cafeteria with my colleagues, with whom I continued talking about work. Afterwards, class. Internship, theory, works. An hour and a half back home”. Takes a breath: “My God… I arrived at 10 pm, made dinner and continued with the work at the time. Watch a movie? Impossible. I didn’t keep what my friend had said 10 minutes ago to accompany a story. He only stopped to brush his teeth and lie down. The bad thing is that stress wouldn’t let me sleep. And the next day, all over again”.
Self-demanding, competitiveness, workaholism, and what’s the same, toxic productivity. Tur lost his job at the start of the pandemic. And, despite working since he was 15 years old and having a good and extensive curriculum, he decided to bet on training given the lack of job expectations. Hopefully, she thought, they would hire her at a big company. But his plan was too ambitious. “I set out to be number one in the group. I wouldn’t let myself fail. I thought that if a teacher wanted to hire one of us, it would be me because I had stood out among everyone else. That’s why I worked more than what was required of me in the internships and devoted endless hours to work. There was always something to improve, edit, add”.
But what exactly is toxic productivity? María Jesús Álava Reyes, general health psychologist and specialist in Work and Organizational Psychology, says that this is a situation that occurs when there is excess work, when extreme situations are reached. “This happens out of fear and excessive pressure. Breeding becomes toxic because this rhythm cannot be maintained over time and wreaks havoc on health. It also creates a toxic environment because there is a mismatch between work and the rest of your life.”
It’s not that toxic productivity only occurs in the workplace. It also happens with the obsession, for example, of training five hours a day. And how to forget about confinement: “The world burning, torn apart, and us at home setting up online courses, visiting online museums, doing crafts and cutting our nails on our Instagram Live for 32 viewers”, as writer Anna Pacheco put it in a column . But this hyper-productivity occurs especially at work because it’s where we spend the most time in our routine.
And although this situation is and has been common in our hyperconnected societies, the pandemic has worsened even more. “Teleworking prevents many from completing their tasks at 5 pm, for example, as before”, says psychologist Álava. “We don’t disconnect our cell phones and computers, and all at the expense of an increase in the workday with less reconciliation. Sometimes we have endless journeys, there are no limits”. As with Tur, who continues to work until the weekend. “I needed to organize myself to see friends, when I had time”.
Toxic productivity affects some more than others. The three psychologists consulted for this report agree that, mainly, it stands out in ambitious people, but also in those with low self-esteem. Elisa Sánchez, a Labor Psychologist at the College of Psychology in Madrid, says: “People with a high level of demand feel that they are not enough despite what they do. They always need outside opinion and recognition to feel valid. For them fear is relevant. This anxiety was accentuated with covid-19 due to the uncertainty and not being able to control what happens. What can they control? What they do. That’s why they work harder and the more others see, the better. So they have the feeling that they control time and their lives”.
José Ramos, professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Valencia, also points out external factors: society’s expectations, work instability and the environment: “Sometimes our work is affected by working in environments that are toxic and that demand from us above what is recommended”. The result? We feel pressured for fear of not living up to others’ expectations. What young Tur thought about tutors in her internships. “Nobody told me to leave, not to come back the next day for having worked so hard. They were delighted. But the need to fulfill the tasks overwhelms you and defeats you. Whoever is in charge is rested and you are crazy”. That’s why Tur, who is young and has already experienced the 2008 crisis, is distressed when he remembers: “It didn’t matter that we had a job, even if it was an exploration, there was always someone who said to you, ‘Oh, there’s a job? So don’t complain because you’re lucky.’ And we believed”. That’s why she says that in those months of exhaustion she kept repeating: “May it not happen to me again, may it not happen to me again…”. That she doesn’t go out of work, that she doesn’t have to go back to working as a waitress, that she doesn’t feel unappreciated again.
So when you get to that point, how do you recognize that we have toxic productivity? It is necessary to notice the signs. If they tell you it doesn’t have a life of its own, be suspicious. If you have unusual anxiety and stress, doubt it. If you are in a state of activation and nervousness, if you are exhausted and saturated, think. And do this if you also think your mood is low. This is what María Jesús Álava says in her self-help book The uselessness of suffering (the uselessness of suffering).
Psychologist Elisa Sánchez, director of IDEIN, thinks we should focus on enjoying the process and not just the result. “Instead of going without dinner to finish one last task, I’m going to find a friend, walk, look at the ceiling, it doesn’t matter. In the same way that I impose myself tasks to perform that are not healthy, I can do it to impose healthy limits on myself that are good for my relationship with others”.
For specialist José Ramos, the issue is to detect the problem in time, before it’s too late. “If we consider work as an important element, we will have to prevent stress. We cannot work without energy: we have to sleep, play sports, go out with friends”. It also asks companies for a commitment: “It is necessary to train the directors so that they know how far it is reasonable to demand objectives”. Expert Álava is convinced that, in general, there are very valuable practices. “Five or ten minutes a day of relaxation and meditation training would do everyone a lot of good.”
Finally, the three experts agree: prevention, therapy and going to the psychiatrist are things that will help to avoid the harmful effects on health: insomnia and stress first. And then anxiety and depression.
Specialist Sánchez likes to compare two types of people in this sense: “People from measured time and people from lived time. The former depend on the clock and productivity. The second ones don’t look at him, but enjoy the moment. Like the typical friend who always arrives late, but then stays until the end”.
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