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Covid, Work and occupational

You are more than your productivity

Dr Maria Kordowicz on creating meaning post-Covid-19.

18 June 2020

The pervasive dogma of productivity undermines the psychological wellbeing of not only the workforce, but that of society as a whole. Productivity as a value has become an accepted and embodied norm in neoliberal societies. I feel that this is not adequately contested, although I was inspired to write this piece by a meme entitled an ‘Anti-capitalist Love Note’ with pushback against the status quo simply worded as ‘you are more than your productivity’. 

Here, I define productivity as the rate of output and the efficiency of production. Therefore, productivity is typically understood to be doing lots in the shortest amount of time. Productivity growth had seemingly reached a threshold in advanced economies pre-Covid-19, though productivity zeal continues in its ubiquity regardless. The current backdrop offers us opportunity to consign the unabating ‘growth is good’ ideology to history, and to offer some solutions in line with a post-pandemic vision.

Productivity as a value

A value refers to standards of behaviour, worth and principle. Productivity has gained the status of a value, due to being intrinsically tied to neoliberal constructs of deregulated capital markets, maximising efficiencies and business and economic growth. Through the removal of state restriction, business remains unhindered, therefore maximising productivity – a core raison d’être of industry. 

These narratives have permeated both private and public workplaces and spaces – the latter notably becoming infused with new public management rhetoric and control mechanisms, such as the proliferation of data reporting, metric-based performance standards, and the imposition of internal competition and output mandates. Training the populace to become obedient subjects of neoliberalism begins in childhood.

For instance, seven-year-olds in English primary schools are coached to read quickly in order to perform well on a one-hour Government-set reading test which can be anywhere between 1500 to 2300 words in length. This significantly undermines the notion of reading for knowledge acquisition and/or simply enjoyment.

Observing the Covid-19 new reality from my perspective of now largely marketised Higher Education, the relentless push for productivity can be viewed as a trauma response – the distraction of the immediate rush to move to online teaching without due consideration of student circumstances, the proliferation of online ‘keeping in touch’ video meetings intruding into our homes, ruthless academic workloading. No time has been afforded for the reflection nor pause much needed to make sense of these extraordinary times. Arguably, post-pandemic economic recovery has become a useful smokescreen for the continued exploitation of the worker. 

Beyond the work sphere, the proliferation of new technologies and unprecedented information exposure have challenged our capacity to interact with knowledge (and others) in a meaningful way. Daily, we are faced with volumes of information, and the resulting decisional burden that we simply do not have the resource to manage, not least in terms of length of our human lifespans.

This leads to what has been termed as ‘decisional fatigue’. Indeed, productivity ‘hacks’ encourage the reduction of this apparent phenomenon through behaviours such as wearing a ‘signature garment’, in the style of Mark Zuckerberg’s grey t-shirt or Steve Jobs’ turtleneck. Instead of reclaiming time for creativity and spontaneity, we are advised to eliminate even the process of experimenting with design and colour in how we dress ourselves, lest this undermine our scope for productivity and our capacity for the entrepreneurial ideal.

The psychological harm of productivity

The notion of ‘industrial fatigue’ – the reduced capacity for productive work – is not new. Steffan Blayney documents how by 1918, the body and physical health were directly associated with productive capacity. The body was conceived of as being inextricably linked to industrial machinery, ‘reimagined as a productive system’. Thus, medical approaches and social understandings conceptualised fatigue resulting from industry as a pathology to be eliminated in order to achieve peak performance. 

This reductionist view of the human body and the human purpose pervades our current working and personal lives. Downtime, relaxation, the natural bodily requirement to rest, are viewed as barriers to industrial productivity – barriers to be overcome through continuous external and internal pressure for outputs.

Daily, we push through bodily discomfort in order to deliver outputs to a cause that is not our own, rendering our bodies tools of neoliberal economies in a post-exhaustion era. Rest is firmly promoted as an individual responsibility, and only warranted as a tool for productivity optimisation. This can be seen in Covid HR policies which promote taking breaks whilst workload volumes and digital ‘check ins’ proliferate, cutting into what would usually be commuting or family time. 

The constant squeezing of our routines for more output creates an illusion of productivity afforded to us through new technologies, paradoxically reducing our ability to be productive towards a longer-term vision, to embrace tasks requiring time and reflection. The mantra of productivity has permeated both our personal and professional spheres. Home-based productivity pressures typically remain gendered, especially under lockdown, with unwaged social reproduction largely the remit of women, wedged into personal and family time.

It may be our search for meaning and a value-based existence that conversely continues to drive the productivity fallacy – the self-help industry is booming with an estimated market value growth to $13.2 billion by 2022, with top sellers overwhelmingly focused on productivity ‘improvement’. The productivity mantra has replaced the human search for meaning, and rather than a means to an end, it has become an end in itself. ‘Busy’ has become the accepted response to being asked how one is. 

And yet the push for productivity may be one of the most significant contemporary threats to our mental health. Psychological harm can be defined as emotional damage which causes distress or undermines the ability of the individual to lead a fulfilled life.

The HSE Labour Force Survey reported pre-Covid over 600,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018/2019. Arguably, the ongoing psychologisation of work and the workplace since the 2006 Layard Report has endorsed the notion of the unproductive worker as a mental pathology for which they themselves are culpable. There is no time like the present to fight for a reimagined human experience beyond the shackles of purely economic drivers.

Regaining meaning

How does one push back against the pervasiveness of the productivity mantra? This can be achieved by recognising alternative values in our search for meaning and self-improvement. Namely, contemplation, slow-living, and self-compassion. There is growing support for a true (and therefore not condensed) four day working week. Promoting space for rest and reflection is key.

In her article on contemplation and organisation studies, Jean Bartunek focuses on academic work, and how pressures to quantify research impact undermine the contemplative activities so necessary for knowledge generation. Bartunek also links contemplation as a means of practicing compassion to self and others. Compassion and care are presented as key features of contemplation, as through contemplation we develop the capacity to experience life and connect with all its facets in rich depth. No doubt these are crucial skills not only for researchers; for instance, there is a body of literature exploring the benefits of compassion and contemplative pause in frontline healthcare workers.

As psychologists we need to remain resistant to the exploitation of our profession as a tool of the state for attaining economic productivity and market dominance. The economic imperative should not subsume our values of humanity and compassion towards our clients. Individual resilience workshops and lunchtime mindfulness sessions (now over Zoom) reign supreme, and whilst of some proven benefit to the individual, they can be but an extension of the hyper-individualisation of the workforce. Employees bear the stress and sense of responsibility for their stress, whilst the stress-inducing corporate systems and structures remain unchanged. Psychologists should not be reiterating nor embodying these harmful narratives, and the global pandemic which surrounds us is surely holding a mirror up to how we function as a profession and as a society.

Unsurprisingly, even more so during the pandemic, we continue to be bombarded with information about remaining resilient – as workers and for our personal mental wellbeing. However, I urge you to recognise that resilience has increasingly become conflated with the ability to continue to produce within a challenging context, and yet resilience could and should be about knowing when to rest and remove oneself from an adverse setting.

I urge organisations to recognise the benefits of this approach, moving away from resilience as a weaponised HR construct towards individual workers, but rather seek to resolve systemic issues which uphold productivity over people. After all, where has all this productivity got us to, when the pandemic has highlighted how even the seemingly well off amongst us live precariously surviving from one payslip or invoice to the next? For the majority of us, our employment arrangements are not even affording us with mid-term security. 

The Nap Ministry is a movement founded on counter-productivity principles, endorsing rest as pushback against capitalism, white supremacy and the patriarchy. Rest is conceptualised as a form of resistance and healing from the relentless pressures to do more within a ‘grind’ culture. The Nap Ministry upholds rest as a human right not a privilege.

In a similar vein, we must challenge the notion of human economic prosperity being primarily attained by the utilisation of labour, along with the faceless standardisation and surveillance of human experience through technology. This is an opportunity to reflect on how intrusive new technologies have been to our working lives even before the current proliferation of connectivity undermining our work/life boundaries and intruding into our homes.

In practical terms, and with many employers suffering from depleted teams, organisations ought to re-evaluate the workload their staff have to contend with. It is imperative that workplaces do away with meaningless rituals which give a semblance of rationale for their existence, and rather shift the design of their activity to that which benefits society, whilst affording plenty of scope for rest. Let’s heed the call for a future blueprint which works for the workers through upholding our shared humanity. Crucially, we need to be unambiguous in our resolve that it is not productivity, but our own mental health along with that of those for whom we have a duty of care, which take utmost priority at this time.

- Dr Maria Kordowicz CPsychol AFBPsS 
Senior Lecturer in Business Psychology, University of Lincoln
Twitter: @mariakordowicz

Editor's note: This article originally appeared online on 18 June 2020.

Key sources

Bartunek, J. (2019). Contemplation and Organization Studies: Why contemplative activities are so crucial for our academic lives. Organization Studies, 40(10), 1463-1479.

Blayney, S. (2019). Industrial fatigue and the productive body: The science of work in Britain, c. 1900–1918. Social History of Medicine, 32(2), 310-328.