The Dangers of Toxic Productivity in Creative Industries & Beyond

What are the lines we won’t cross when we urge ourselves to keep on working? Is it lack of sleep? Is it too much stress? Or is it sacrificing our personal and social needs? Toxic productivity might push these boundaries even further.

What does the workforce look like for a modern-day employee? At first glance, many would say it’s better than ever. Freelancers, creative workers, and jacks of all trades are finally living and producing in an innovative and connected society, digitally capable and created based on their needs. The traditional corporate hierarchy doesn’t exist for them anymore and the freedom to pick their own hours, clients, and projects is more than encouraged.

However, is that really such a fairytale? Or are we actually talking about a political and economic order that benefits from risk-taking, flexible employment, a lack of valorization, and a model of statehood that expects the individual to bear all the responsibilities that would usually fall on an employer or the country?

The prototype of an ideal employee, especially in creative industries, is that of a constantly available person, always willing to step over their own boundaries because of the love they have for their work. They are used to constant productivity. Continual creation of content is a norm in order to survive in contemporary capitalism. Yet, what are the repercussions of this kind of system? And what happens to the employees, the employers, and their industries once the only value a person has is gained from the amount of work they are able to do?

 

The Cult of a Toxic Productivity

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Toxic productivity is a cultural trend of being obsessed with productive work. It values only the success we have and the money we earn. It expects sacrificing our hobbies, friends, and family, or, really, any other kind of pleasure outside of the workspace. To its employees, it sets an imperative of constant production and devotement, no matter how much time, strength, and energy that might ask of them. Moreover, it tells them that it’s only through overworking themselves that they can find any kind of true meaning and happiness.

While this phenomenon has been present in the business sphere, the media, and the broader public for years and years on end, it became especially visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. Once we exchanged our offices for our homes, our working conditions changed tremendously, as well as the expectations placed on the workers themselves. Whether direct or indirect, one message is crystal clear—if they can’t see you working, you’ll have to convince them you’re extremely committed to your job. Because if you aren’t, what does that say about you?

‘The hustle’, ‘the grind’, and ‘burnout’ are just some of the different, primarily pejorative slang terms, which we increasingly associate with the workplace and work practices in a seemingly positive way. The idea of affirmative observation of overtime work, vulgar voluntarism, and life so closely related to our jobs that reality outside of it does not exist, has entered our consciousness as well as our vocabulary. Maybe that’s why it’s not surprising how easily we’ve accepted it as true.

By carefully choosing words and emphasizing the benefits of constant productivity, reshaping even its negative and fatal traits into positive ones, we surrounded ourselves with narratives that more than support this approach to work. However, language in itself is not what manipulates people to believe in something they did not want to believe in until then. Instead, it gives them the right to turn to ideas to which they were already open, to begin with.

The problem is, therefore, primarily systemic.

 

The Consequences of a Toxic Productivity

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With constant pressure coming from the media, our surroundings, and also social networks, which all together present toxic productivity as a desirable thing, there are a few of us who are able to escape it and thus not suffer under exploitative practices hidden beneath its surface.

On the one hand, there are serious consequences, going from the ‘burnout’ syndrome all the way to high-functioning depression or various combinations and variations of anxiety, neurosis, psychosis, and other mental illnesses. On the other hand, these consequences can be more or less benign and don’t permanently affect our lives (such as changing our daily routines due to urgent business obligations or reducing our social life for the week).

And yet, it is necessary to ask ourselves why we are willing to make these compromises, to begin with? Why is it okay to expect an individual to want to subordinate their own needs to a job that, in the worst case, may not even offer us basic means to live a dignified life?

When we talk about creative industries specifically, we have to take into account that creating content requires an individual to be in a good mental state in order to be creative in the first place. Imagination, unique ideas, and artistic projects can’t be created under circumstances of pressure. The process of creation is closely linked to the freedom of opinion and time, the need for self-expression, and a certain zeal to create a unique product from scratch.

 

Creativity as a Resource

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It is necessary to understand that creativity, an abstract and unmeasurable concept, comes with certain limitations. If an individual works under pressure that their product might not be good enough, made quickly enough, respected enough, or all in all won’t be adequate enough, they won’t be free to indulge in the essence of creativity. Which, in addition to requiring the necessary skills of production and craftwork, also requires a certain level of enjoyment. And, in a society where work—creative or not—can be assessed as insufficient, not meeting a standard can be perceived as a moral failure.

The fact is that the concept of a ‘good’ creative product and talent is extremely subjective, but if we think in accordance with neoliberal principles, it is easy to forget that our personal opinions on aesthetics are also essentially irrelevant and unnecessary. If a creative worker fears being labeled as lazy, bad, or untalented, thus modifying their creative process, they lose the basic benefits and human rights that creativity brings to man—fun, entertainment, and the opportunity to develop new ideas, concepts, and opinions while learning about themselves.

Isn’t it valid, then, to ask ourselves how creative industries can exist in the long run if their capitalist tendencies stifle creativity? And isn’t it just as valid to conclude that, in this form, they exist only thanks to the constant exploitation of creative workers who due to the oversaturated labor market can easily be replaced when they run out of assets they can continually offer to the industry?

If an employee no longer contributes, there’s a sea of others who’ll be willing to come and take their place… until the moment when they themselves will have to be replaced. Those who are no longer able to work will simply have to deal with it. After all, without work, they’ll have no value to the industry and there won’t be any reason to spend funds on their needs and lives in order to sustain them. Right?

Our idea of productivity is based on the premise that a process of creation is the only one that ultimately brings us a new product. Maintenance, care and the enjoyment of basic human rights that enable creative work are not, therefore, in themselves perceived as productive.

In the cult of toxic productivity, through constant social and media pressure, we romanticize the idea of continuous work and its benefits. Discipline and hustle culture have modified the workers themselves and their process in such a way that burnout is desirable and supported. Workers are expected to emotionally invest in their work and neglect their own needs and rights in the name of production. Those who aren’t able to do that, and especially those who aren’t financially secure due to their careers, are characterized as bad workers. The only moral winner is an exhausted worker, so dedicated to their job that no time is wasted on hobbies, rest, and private life.

However, spending a certain number of hours doing something doesn’t guarantee productivity, just as constant productivity won’t make an average person a millionaire. In reality, the individuals at the top of the economic food chain earning the most are, in most cases, not the same ones actually doing the most.

And, although productivity is not a negative thing in itself, thinking about it only in terms of profit and practicality leads to inequality and exploitation of individuals. Moreover, a toxic productive attitude towards work results in a number of side effects, of which poor mental health is just one of them.

Within the creative industries, a continuous production cycle and pressure to always create and develop new ideas, which only serve to value the people behind it, exploit workers as much as creativity. If we stop looking at this situation exclusively from the angle of current profit, it is easy to see that such an approach doesn’t contribute, but rather suffocates creative workers and creative industries as such—as well as all workers and all industries globally.

We forget the fact that we work and choose a certain profession to ensure economic stability. We also forget to ask ourselves why we are so emotionally and physically dedicated to a job if, in return, we essentially get very little. “The compulsion to be happy at work,“ writes journalist Sarah Jeffe in her book Work Won’t Love You Back, “is always a demand for emotional work from the worker. Work, after all, has no feelings. Capitalism cannot love.”

 

Photo: polinaloves/shutterstock

 


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