Employee Wellbeing

Sisyphus is Not Happy, He is Burned Out: The Cycle of Toxic Productivity and How to Prevent it

March 29, 2023

You are often proud of how much work you can get done in a day, despite having an overarching schedule of personal and professional responsibilities. But wait, are you happy too? Are you sure your sense of achievement isn't misplaced?

Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, is perceived to be “happy” even after being eternally condemned to roll a boulder up the hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top. Sounds familiar? Modern-day Sisyphus is even more willing to fall into the vicious cycle of overambition and absolute submission to the unrealistic demands of his work environment.

Productivity can be a good thing, but there is a very thin, and often blurred, line that separates it from toxic productivity. Being a perfectionist is often appreciated in the toxic productivity culture where all work and no play is what is required of Jack. 

In the Myth of Sisyphus, French philosopher Albert Camus suggests that Sisyphus is happy to have found salvation in his eternal condemnation. But this almost forced optimism doesn’t hold any logical ground.

Sisyphus is not happy. 

Consider this: how different is his never-ending and futile effort from the routine, soulless, and dangerous trap of toxic productivity today? People who work 55 hours or more a week have a 35% higher risk for stroke in comparison to people who worked 35 to 40 hours a week. 

Why is it that with all the scientific advancement of technology and problem-solving strategies, you don't have the time and energy to achieve a work-life balance? Before you ask yourself these not-so-difficult questions, let’s delve a little deeper into what is toxic productivity.

What is Toxic Productivity?

When you put yourself under the pressure to constantly work hard, do more, and achieve more, even at the expense of your well-being, you develop a toxic productive attitude.

Toxic productivity can be defined in different ways in terms of its internal or external sources:

  • It refers to the excessive focus on productivity and work that can harm one's mental and physical well-being. It involves a constant drive to work more and accomplish more, even if it means sacrificing personal relationships, emotional health, and rest. 
  • It is a culture that values overworking, long hours, and constant self-improvement, which can lead to burnout, stress, and toxic anxiety.
  • Sometimes, it is a personal bias of “doing” against “not doing”.

In other words, you stop working to live and start living to work! 

Signs of Toxic Productivity

If you are driven by the need to do a lot and do it all at once, you inevitably end up multitasking, which is problematic. If you feel that it has become almost impossible to take a break from work, you are going down the rabbit hole. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering why it’s never enough even when you are burning the candle at both ends. 

You are constantly raising the bar of productivity for yourself, to the point where you feel that your achievements are insignificant compared to your goals. Where does it lead?

Here are five major signs that you are caught in the trap of toxic productivity, and how you can pull yourself out before it’s too late.

1. Low Self-Esteem and the Need to Prove Yourself

Toxic productivity psychology develops in response to unrealistic expectations of the hustle culture. It encourages you to strive for perfection in all areas of life. At some point in this grinding competition, being human, you are unable to hit the mark and all your self-worth comes crashing down.

The fear of failure or not doing good enough leads to a sense of low self-esteem and the need for external validation. It becomes a vicious cycle where you are constantly pushing yourself to ‘do more’ and be ‘available’ to prove that you are not a failure. But it doesn't have to be this way. Here is what you can do:

Remember that ‘more’ isn’t necessarily ‘good’

Differentiate between what is expected of you in your workplace surroundings and what is your productivity threshold. 

Stop comparing yourself with the accumulated achievements of everyone around you or on social media. You have your unique strengths and can do better if you focus on them.

It’s only you who can set the limits and draw healthy boundaries, not only at work but also in your personal life. Practice digital detox from social media now and then. 

Keep a journal instead to write down what you achieved and how it made you feel. When you are too ambitious, you tend to forget what you have accomplished because you are obsessed with your future goals. 

2. The Guilt of Not Doing Enough Cuts Both Ways

You promise your daughter that you will be there to watch her performance on the annual parent's day, but if you keep your promise, you feel guilty for not working your regular hours that day. You keep checking your email during the event and get frustrated for not being at work. 

The same feeling of guilt arises when you take a break or need rest because you should always be working and producing something. So you are in a guilt trap where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The urge to be always “connected” to work muddles your view of what is important versus what is urgent. But you can definitely get rid of this misplaced guilt.

Being busy is not the same as being productive

It is impossible to have the same level of productivity every hour of every day. Being human has its limitations, and you can do no good by constantly challenging your physical and mental health.

Redefine what “productivity” means for you. For this, you need to have realistic expectations from yourself and communicate your boundaries at your workplace. Most importantly, your self-worth must be rooted in how ‘you’ feel instead of the external sources of validation.

3. Self-care and Relationships are Deprioritized

What could be crazier than you forgetting yourself while chasing after unreasonable standards of productivity? It’s all downhill once you start neglecting your personal life and relationships due to a twisted sense of self-worth. 

A perceived lack of time makes you negligent of self-care, relationships, and your physical and emotional health. It is also important to ask yourself if your toxic productivity stems from a need to escape your personal life. Because this approach backfires when the problems you ignore become disastrous.

Practice doing nothing and wasting time with your loved ones

Again, reframe what it means to “waste time”. If going on a random walk and gazing at stars is a waste of time, do it. If playing with your kids or your pet is a waste of time, do it. If reading a book that is not related to work is a waste of time, do it. Be idle and waste time if it makes you and your loved ones happy, and it can be possible if you budget your time.

There are things in life that require your creativity just as your work demands productivity. Don’t spend all your energy on professional goals. When you are emotionally well-settled in your relationships, it gives you an energy boost that has a positive effect on your productivity.

Eat better, sleep better, and laugh better. So that you can work better!

4. Toxic Productivity Turns into Counterproductivity  

The most debilitating implication of toxic productivity is that it is, ironically, counter-productive. When you are multitasking, you are slower, less accurate, and prone to knee-jerk reactions to problems that require focus and premeditation. You are trying to do more in less time so that you can show up as the most efficient worker.

Unsurprisingly, an overworked mind tends to become less focused and shows poor retention. There is a bombardment of ideas, emails, texts, and commitments, and your mental capabilities and productivity is compromised. 

Taking up multiple jobs/projects at a time and trying to break records takes you nowhere. On the contrary, you might feel that the boulder you are trying to roll up the hill can suddenly start rolling down with all its weight and added velocity.

Think in the long term and break down your goals

Slow and steady wins the race, but even if it doesn’t win the race, it finishes it at least. You can achieve more with consistent and gradual progress instead of short bursts of intense effort. 

While you keep an eye on your long-term goals, break them down into small doable tasks to build momentum and a sense of achievement. Being well organized and setting strict work hours will provide you with buffers of free time for rest breaks.

5. The Burnout 

Finally, if you’ve been ignoring the signs of toxic productivity, you are likely burned out. You are experiencing low morale and physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive stress at work. 

You feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet the demands of an overstretched schedule.              

Burnout is not a temporary feeling of stress or fatigue, but rather a chronic condition that can have serious consequences on one's overall health and well-being. Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and insomnia make you irritable and cause emotional outbursts.

You certainly don’t want to be in such a self-defeating situation, so what to do?

Know your ‘power hour’: focus on time management to avoid being over-worked

You must be thinking, easier said than done, right? Not really. Bring in a productivity management tool like timegram to track your peak productivity hours. Once you know the time of the day when your focus is concentrated and sharp, utilize that time to tackle the major workload and problem-solving tasks.

You can boost your productivity when you work ‘smart’ instead of working ‘hard’. timegram helps you achieve your maximum potential by capturing your high-yielding hours and increasing your self-awareness.

Use the time that indicates low productivity to take regular breaks, relax, nurture, and then bounce back with your energy restored and spirits high!

Toxic Productivity Culture: Sometimes, it’s Not You

You have managed to regain your sense of priorities and check your ambition but you feel that you are still compelled to keep your nose to the grindstone. Why? Because it’s not about you. 

Toxic Productivity Culture (TPC), popularly known as “hustle culture”, is a phenomenon that has gained popularity in recent years. It’s shaped by the toxic productivity psychology that glorifies hard work and professional growth at the cost of employee well-being.

When it’s internal, it becomes an addiction or a distraction. But if it comes from outside, it is often garbed in the cloak of vibrant leadership with high aims.                        

How do you know if your workplace has a TPC? Here are a few markers:

  • Long working hours: You are expected to work long hours regularly, with no regard for work-life balance.
  • Unrealistic deadlines: You are given unrealistic deadlines, causing stress and anxiety.
  • You are not allowed to disconnect: It is a culture of staying connected to work on smartphones and laptops even if you are sick or not feeling well, and taking time off is frowned upon.
  • Lack of appreciation: There is a lack of appreciation and recognition for employees' hard work and contributions.
  • High turnover rates: Employees leave frequently due to burnout, stress, and other health implications.                        

To prevent workplace burnout, individuals and organizations need to prioritize self-care, stress management, and healthy work-life balance.

It is also important for organizations to create a positive and supportive work environment that values employee well-being and provides resources for managing stress and burnout.


Now you are at a place where you have gained awareness of toxic productivity and its symptoms in individual employees and workplace culture. There is one thing common in all the implications of toxic productivity; It robs you of your time!

If you are stressed about an ever-invasive employee monitoring tool that doesn’t allow you to have a break, timegram can be your best accountability partner. 

With its easy-to-access UI, and smart time tracking capabilities, it gives the most accurate assessment of your productivity patterns. It gives you the freedom to select and highlight your productive activities to show your best work to managers.

All the captured data is private to you and you only, until you choose to log it.

Want to know more about us? check out our privacy first policy. 

If you think this is what you have been missing in your work, Sign up here!


Is toxic productivity a mental illness? 

Toxic productivity does not have a clinical diagnosis, although it may cause ‘workplace burnout’, which was officially added to the International Classification of Diseases by WHO in 2019. It is an occupational phenomenon that can be a sign that you’re struggling with high-functioning depression. It might surface as a symptom of other underlying mental health issues such as feelings of inadequacy, decreased energy, guilt, impostor syndrome, or low self-worth. A toxic-productive person tries to avoid these issues by putting all their energy into their job or goal-oriented tasks.

How do you identify a toxic work environment?

A toxic work environment can be defined as a culture where the employees have an unhealthy relationship with their job and the management. The job description and roles are undefined and unclear, which might lead to a high turnover rate. The core values are centered on the output, client satisfaction, and organizational growth at the cost of employee wellbeing. 

If the core values of your organization are arbitrary, it lacks transparency and becomes invasive. There is no recognition or reward for the employees' hard work and they feel unappreciated which undermines their productivity. At some point, their toxic behavior o the high productivity and they might experience burnout. 

Are toxic productive people more successful? 

On the surface, toxic productive people might appear as successful high achievers. But they gradually become harmful not only to themselves but also to the organization. While a toxic employee might get more things done but the quality of their work is compromised due to excessive stress and burnout. Eventually, they are prone to breakdowns which results in diminishing productivity.

How to deal with productivity shame? 

A workplace that focuses on productivity at all costs creates an environment where employees are encouraged to put their self-worth into their performance. As a result, they are shamed for not prioritizing work above all other areas of life.

To overcome toxic productivity shame, you can:

  • Communicate with your management to have strict guidelines on daily goals.
  • Stop putting your self-worth in compliance with the unrealistic demands of your job.
  • Stop comparing yourself with others, and practice professional detox after working hours. 
  • Ask for clear boundaries and a finish line for a day's work.
  • Regain your confidence by gaining self-awareness of your optimal productivity hours.
  • Write down your achievements.
  • Never feel guilty for indulging in self-care, or prioritizing your personal relationships.
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Sidra Ali Shah

About the author

Sidra is a research scholar and a philosophy nerd who fell in love with language at a very young age. She believes it's words and their combinations that make the world go round. In her free time, she likes to brainstorm with her children.

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