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Productivity at What Cost?

We are bombarded by messages about peak performance and the need to develop resilience, so much so that this focus has become an accepted norm within society. However, as Dr Maria Kordowicz writes,

“You are more than your productivity”

I was inspired to write this by Maria’s article in The Psychologist this month and by conversations with Amanda Page and David A. Richards. We’ve been discussing expectations for people to cope, to get on with whatever is thrown their way, to ‘put-up and shut-up’, regardless of the cost. But where do we draw the line?


The Value of What We Measure

The drive to increase output and efficiency means that we have come to understand this term as doing as much as you can in the shortest time. While we acknowledge that it is good to grow and develop, we need to draw a line at some point to prevent pushing beyond the realms of healthy human functioning. In other words, we need to measure the cost on psychological wellbeing.


The need for data reporting and quantitate performance standards starts from our primary school days and continues into adulthood when we are measured against organisational goals and our peers. That means we constantly strive to ‘do better’ and to achieve the next best thing. But what happened to being able to reflect on the value we currently provide, the difference we make already, the balance in life that we may only just be hanging onto?


When do we hit the pause button to take stock of the direction we’re heading in? As we leap from one situation to the next, feeling precarious in such changing times, how good are we at checking that the new way of doing things is fit for purpose; that it’s contributing to how we function as human beings? How well does the place in which we spend our time meet our need for meaning, social connection and a sense of achievement? Which of our tasks are about creativity, reflection and seeking the best options, compared to high output? Would people say they are nearer to feeling enjoyment, being their best, or burnout?


Industrial Fatigue

This concept is not new. Steffan Blayney documents the link between health and productive capacity as far back as 1918. It has become accepted that fatigue needs to be eliminated in order to be most productive. But when we are not actively encouraged or rewarded to look after ourselves by taking breaks, having down time, completely switching off, the result is an even bigger barrier to productivity.

Neuroscience shows us that high emotional arousal hijacks the neocortex and reduces our cognitive capacity. Pushing ourselves to the limit actually reduces productivity. It’s not surprising really, yet companies continue to drive employees beyond their peak performance, believing that raising the bar, and monetary gains, will achieve better things. In reality, this is a case where doing less but doing it well, having the space to be creative, communicate effectively, problem solve, plan, learn and apply existing knowledge and skills to maximum effect boosts productivity. 


The Real cost

…. is a significant decline in our mental health. When we consider that psychological harm can be defined as emotional damage which causes distress or undermines the ability of the individual to lead a fulfilled life (Dr Kordowicz), we need to be taking responsibility for emotional health. Stress is not a weakness and depression and anxiety are not necessarily illnesses to be cured. They are responses to what’s going on in the world, reflecting social and economic factors, such as poverty, that may be beyond our control. So we need to address what we can take control of and that is about focusing on what we need for wellbeing and self-improvement. When we prioritise kindness, the need for rest, our achievement, our strengths and genuine social, emotional connection, we see people flourish.

Instead of driving people to the bone, pushing them to their limits, particularly during times when resources are stretched, find ways to treat people with compassion. Identify what they need in order to achieve mental space. Break down the barriers to people being their best in the workplace. And stop expecting employees to become more resilient. It’s about time we challenge the notion of employees working harder at jumping higher and instead, ask the question ‘Do they need to jump at all?’.


If this is resonating with you and you’d like to chat about it further, please do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you.



Dr Kordowicz, M. (2020) You Are More Than Your Productivity. The Psychologist, The British Psychological Society, November Vol.33
Blayney, S. (2019). Industrial Fatigue and The Productive Body: The Science of Work in Britain, c. 1900-1918. Social History of Medicine, 32(2)