An Antidote to Burnout: Getting Clients Past Toxic Productivity

Discover three interventions to help clients identify and overcome burnout

Israa Nasir, MHC

What exactly is toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is the unhealthy obsession with productivity and achievement, and nothing you do ever feels good enough. In the toxic productivity mindset, people conflate their sense of self (i.e., self-worth) with their achievements and accomplishments. In other words, they see their value as a person as directly linked with what they’ve gotten done—and only with concrete evidence to back it up. But when they are not ”producing” something, it triggers feelings of guilt and shame for not being ”enough.” Toxic productivity is not just related to our work and careers. It shows up nearly everywhere, including our personal relationships and general life as well.

Why do people pursue this toxic productivity and chronic busy-ness?

People pursue toxic productivity and chronic busy-ness because they want to avoid the emotional pain of feeling “not good enough.” When productivity and achievements are used as a gauge to measure self-worth, the failure to reach these standards can trigger painful reactions like shame, guilt, perfectionism, and critical social comparison. To avoid these triggers, people dive headfirst into toxic productivity—blocking any potential shame, guilt, and comparisons by instead looking for any opportunity to achieve.

How does toxic productivity make us feel?

Toxic productivity can be very subtle. It can show up in the small day-to-day thoughts that urge people to “do more” while simultaneously pressing them not to waste time by doing something seen as “less productive.” These thoughts could be the twinge of guilt someone might feel for taking a nap in the middle of the day, or the slight shame they might feel watching TV instead of reading a book.

Another key component of toxic productivity is the comparisons that people make between themselves and others. Toxic productivity takes the internal benchmark of personal achievement and brings it into the external world: What are other people doing? Do I measure up to them? These types of self-comparisons end up making people feel like they aren’t good enough, and this can negatively impact self-esteem.

Toxic productivity might initially help people cross some things off their to-do lists, but ultimately, it will lead to burnout. This is why it’s so important to be aware of its signs and signals early on to make the necessary lifestyle changes—and avoid the stress-inducing and hopeless stage of complete physical and mental exhaustion.

What is the antidote to toxic productivity?

The strategy to manage toxic productivity is made up of two levels. The first changes you can begin to make are behavior change. Look at your calendar and intentionally plan times specifically for resting, taking breaks, or doing relaxing activities. You should also attempt to set boundaries with others when it comes to taking on more responsibilities—work on your assertive communication skills and get more comfortable with saying no.

The second level, which goes much deeper, involves exploring the emotions that have driven this toxic productivity for you in the first place. This is understandably more long-term, personal work, but it will create more lasting changes in your habits. A therapist is a great resource to do this one-on-one work with you at your own pace. Reflecting on how your self-worth shows up in your productivity is one of the most important ways to begin to decouple toxic productivity from your lifestyle.

What are some interventions that therapists can use when they identify burnout in their clients?

Here are a few strategies that can help clients who are currently struggling or have struggled with burnout in the past:

1. Time Audit

This skill will help clients who are overwhelmed by tasks in their day-to-day life, leading to stress and burnout. During your session, ask your client to review their entire upcoming week with you and then help them reflect on the “urgent” tasks versus the “important” tasks. It can be helpful to use the Eisenhower Matrix, which can assist in sorting tasks by importance and urgency, seeing which should be tackled first and which can wait until later. Help the client to finetune this schedule, being sure to add in specific times for rest.

For homework outside of session, have your client take a 15- to 30-minute break every day over the next week (where they aren’t catching up on social media or watching TV) and ask them to journal what thoughts they have. Reflect on these thoughts with them in the next session.

2. Practicing the Pause

This skill is helpful for clients who avoid their emotions by throwing themselves into a heap of productive or achievement-oriented activities. Helping these clients to be able to simply sit with difficult emotions is a good way to help them cope with what they are feeling.

Sometimes we distract ourselves or minimize or invalidate feelings of shame or guilt—and we may ignore them completely and pretend like we aren't bothered by them. Other times, we begin a discussion with negative thoughts, become self-critical, or start to put ourselves down. Often, we are so emotional, we don't even know what we're feeling. Taking a pause changes that.

  • Take a deep breath. This will slow down your body and give you some mental clarity.
  • Acknowledge the feeling, and label it. Fill in the blank: I am feeling ________________.
  • Talk to yourself the way you would a friend, and encourage yourself using affirmations.
  • Step away from whatever you were doing and engage in a joyful activity (even if it's just for a minute or so).

3. Finding Comparison Triggers

This skill is helpful for clients who are prone to compare themselves and their productivity to others. When we are triggered to compare, we immediately start to feel unpleasant or distressing emotions. But sometimes, a trigger can appear out of nowhere, and then out come the emotions. It can be easier to address these triggers once we are more aware of them, and then we can create a game plan for dealing with them.

  • Identify some situations and people that trigger critical self-comparison.
  • Once you have awareness of who or what activates the comparison, become aware of what it looks like for you.
    1. What kind of thoughts am I having? Is it negative self-talk, shame and/or guilt thought patterns, jealousy, or a “should/must” mindset? It’s helpful to write out what your thoughts are. Notice if there is a pattern forming, or if certain thoughts often match up with certain triggers.
    2. What happens in my body when I am triggered? Notice the sensations in your body. This is helpful because you can use your body’s sensations in the future as warning signs that you are feeling triggered. Common body sensations are clenching your jaw, feeling tension in the neck, or bringing your shoulder up to your ears.
    3. What emotions do I feel? Bring awareness to your emotional experience and label the emotions you are having. Avoid any judgmental or shaming words when you fill in the following: I am feeling ________. You can go even further by validating yourself: It is okay to feel ________ because _________ (give yourself the context of the trigger and explain to yourself why that is okay).
  • Create a trigger management plan. This plan can include unfollowing social media accounts, limiting interactions with the person, setting more strict boundaries, or even taking a break from them. This doesn’t have to be a permanent thing, just until you feel less triggered by them.

Meet the Expert:
Israa Nasir, MHC, is a psychotherapist, speaker, and founder of the digital mental health brand WellGuide. Israa curates meaningful experiences through one-on-one emotional and mental health coaching, workshops, and speaking engagements to further amplify the message of emotional wellness and mental health. Israa holds an MA in Mental Health Counseling from The Derner Institute in New York and lives in New York City. She is currently writing a book titled Toxic Productivity, scheduled to be published by PESI Publishing in spring 2023.

Topic: Mindfulness | Self-Compassion | Self-Esteem

Tags: Advice | Boundaries | Self-Compassion | Stress | Success | Therapy Tools

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