We need to talk about our toxic obsession with productivity

[Image description: Two doggy, or possibly tiger, paws on the keyboard of a laptop. On the screen are eight other animals (cat, giraffe, tiger, dolphin, horse, sheep, dog, cow), each in their own square, as if they’re on a video conference. There’s a logo with the words “zoo conf” in the lower right corner. Surrounding the laptop is a cup of coffee, cell phone, and notebook with pen. Image by Brian Cragun on Pixabay.]

At the beginning of the pandemic, I texted a friend, an executive director, to see how he was doing. “I share this in confidence,” he texted back, “current sitch, watching Frozen 2 in bed with [my daughter].” He sent over a picture of his TV, on which Anna was huddled against a rock, despondent, about to launch into a song about doing the next right thing. When everything was chaotic and stressful, it was nice to imagine my friend spending time with his little one.

It’s been more than a year since the pandemic started. All of us are overwhelmed and traumatized. And unfortunately, I still see many of us falling into the same terrible habits we had during the Before Times, when we met for lunch and dinner, orchestra music swelling as we embraced one another in slow-motion, golden sunlight burnishing our eyes into twinkling coins. (At least, that’s how I remember it).

One of these habits is the constant striving to be busy and productive. You would think that being forced to confront our own mortality on a daily basis would make us slow down, reexamine what’s important, and make some personal as well sector-wide changes. I haven’t seen that happening too much. In fact, it’s often the opposite. Without the buffer of travel time, pants selection, and face preparations (the touch-up-my-appearance feature in Zoom is a godsend!), some of us are cramming in even more meetings than we had before. I hear colleagues having 8 or 10 or 12 virtual meetings in a day. Meanwhile, the ability to work from home means everything is blurred, and many of us just end up working more hours in total than we used to, which requires innovative solutions like the fake commute.

When I was an ED, younger professionals would come up to me asking what it was like to be an executive director. “It’s great!” I would joke, “you get to work whenever you want, as long as it adds up to 70 hours each week!” This joke still seems relevant, and not just for EDs.

This needs to stop. Just like with the sad, pathetic state of retirement savings, we need to stop joking about how busy and overworked we are. Our obsession with and learned helplessness around productivity is getting out of hand. We already have issues with a Martyr Complex that encourages us to endure being underpaid while sitting on crappy chairs. We also have a Productivity Complex and it’s causing serious damage in several different ways that we probably aren’t even thinking about:

1.We’re reinforcing unrealistic expectations: The more meetings we attend, the more stuff we do off-hours, the more projects we take on, the more we reinforce this idea among one another that this pace is normal and expected. If you’re talking about how you have 12 meetings today, for example, even if you say it with an air of apology and exasperation, it still sends the message that others are supposed to do that too: Have 12 meetings while complaining about having that many meetings. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that’s pervasive across the sector.

2.We’re not being equitable: Being productive in the way we currently defines it requires time and other resources that are not equitably distributed. Those who can afford childcare for their kids, for example, can get more work done than parents who have to work while supervising remote learning and tending to other needs. People from racialized and marginalized identities often have fewer resources while also having more responsibilities, such as taking care of their extended family. We also need to factor in the fact that frontline staff tend to be BIPOC and women while senior leaders tend to be white and men, which brings up a whole host of other variables regarding who can do work how and when.

3.We’re ignoring collective and personal trauma and other deeper issues: It’s been a horrific several years, and it’s still relentless. For many of us, keeping busy and working is often how we deal with stress and trauma. It can be very helpful. But sometimes, it becomes a way to avoid tackling some deeper issues. For example, an organization has tensions among staff or board, and instead of taking time and energy to deal with it together, everyone just works harder at their jobs. The stress of overwork now fuels the tension, and it becomes a ticking time-bomb, likely to explode any moment.

4.We’re perpetuating exploitative and oppressive practices: Our sector has talked a lot about “burnout,” which does result from all of us working too much. On Twitter, disabled union organizer Maggie Levantovskaya (@MLevantovskaya) wrote “Why I prefer using the term exploitation over burnout: Burnout makes it about worker feelings. Exploitation draws our attention to employer practices and policies which require structural solutions.” The more we put up with systems that chew us up and spit us out, the more we normalize these exploitative practices.

5.We’re making it harder to creates sweeping changes: We all daydream about the labor practices of European countries like France or Sweden. I’ve never worked in Europe, but I hear rumors of people being able to leave work at the end of the day, emails being forbidden from being answered off-hours, mandatory six-week vacations, months of paid family leave, etc. If we continue normalizing these toxic American philosophies and practices around productivity, it makes it harder to adopt the things that may be working for our colleagues elsewhere.

6.We’re defining individuals’ worth by their contributions in work hours : A subtle but insidious result of our hyper focus on productivity is that we reinforce the valuing of individuals not by their intrinsic worth, but by how many hours they put in at a job. This further devalues and dehumanizes disabled people, elders, and others who may not be able to work or to work in the ways that society expects. Everyone has intrinsic worth and should be treated with respect and dignity whether they can work or not. Our value to society should not be dependent on what we contribute to do it in the form of work hours.

What are the solutions then? I don’t really know. I have been fully conditioned by this productivity thing, and whenever I’m not working, I feel a weird sense of guilt and shame. I am not the best person to talk about this. But here are a few thoughts:

A. Leaders need to be thoughtful about the messages they’re sending: If you’re in leadership, others look up to you and also feel compelled to copy what you’re doing. So if you work all the time, everyone else feels the pressure to work all the time. If they look at your calendar and see you have 12 back-to-back zoom meetings, they may feel bad if they only have six. Also, consider the personal situations of your team members. Do they have a new baby, small children, elderly parents, etc.? If so, they can’t work as many hours as you do. Think about what sort of example you’re setting. Are you, through your words and actions, letting your team knows it’s not only OK, but encouraged for them to slow down or rest?

B. Take time to talk as a team about this topic: Take time to check in regularly with one another about how everyone is doing. Discuss what areas of work are stressful, what can be delayed, what can be dropped altogether, and what resources may be need to advance the work in a way that won’t exhaust everyone. Encourage, but don’t force, people to bring up personal challenges and contexts. I still see too many organizations operating as if things were perfectly normal, or they have this belief that personal life and work life should be separate or something. I don’t think it’s healthy to require people to compartmentalize.

C. Set boundaries and use boundary markers: I notice more colleagues putting up auto-responses that state when people may expect replies, and even personal philosophies about work and productivity, etc. Others are putting encouraging messages in their emails, such as this one I just received from a colleague: “Please note, I am sending this email at a time that is convenient for me. Please read and respond at a time that is convenient for you.” If you have boundaries such as not meeting before 10am or after 5pm or on Fridays or whatever, that’s good and healthy. Let people know. Not only will it help you protect your time, but it will give others permission to set their own boundaries as well.

D. Funders, stop forcing us to do useless things: For the funders reading this, a lot of our hours are spent doing useless, annoying things to please you. Things like filling out burdensome applications and reports. Seriously, just accept applications and reports written for other funders. It’s the same information! If we’re going to stress out and work excessive hours, at least let us spend them on useful stuff instead of inane, meaningless things. You also have more important things to do than micromanaging these inane, meaningless things.

E. We should explore some new ways of doing things: 4-day work weeks, unlimited vacation, etc. These seem like foreign concepts, because they kind of are. We’re so glued to the way things have been done. How could we not be? There’s so much work to do, especially now when everything is on fire and in crisis all the time. But we still should set aside time and energy to explore different, possibly better ways of working. (Doesn’t mean they will all work; but we do need to experiment).

F. We need to talk about unions: This is a topic that is increasingly brought up. More and more unions are forming. We need to pay attention and have conversations about it. I’ll likely write more about this in the future as I learn more, but spoiler alert, I’m pro-union.

Overall, we have a problem with our current idea of productivity. It’s stressing all of us out and often harming our work, which affects our communities. The way we work, the way we think of productivity, needs some radical shifts.

My friend who watched Frozen 2 with his daughter is one of the most hardworking people I know. He should not have to feel the need to hide something like spending two hours in the middle of the day with his child, especially during a pandemic that continues to rupture everyone’s lives.

With so much uncertainty and trauma facing all of us on a daily basis, resting and spending time with our family or doing other things that recharge and renew us, may just be the most “productive” thing we can do for ourselves and our field.

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