Bubble Worker Syndrome refers to people who find it impossible to disconnect from work obligations. They cannot mark the boundary between their private and work lives, and so are always connected with their job. Toxic productivity is the drive to be productive at all times – not just at work, but in all areas of life. This can happen when people push themselves to unhealthy extremes in order to accomplish more, often at the expense of physical and mental health.
While it is not a new phenomenon, an increase in Bubble Worker Syndrome can be attributed to the rapid advance of new communication technologies, through which people can continue to work from home or remotely – especially since Covid and its lockdowns gave rise to working from home and hybrid workplaces.
Yet a rise in Bubble Worker Syndrome cannot be solely blamed on the rapid development of communication technology. It includes a prevailing work culture that does not respect personal time or reward those who take time off. The rise of Grind culture – commanding people to “wear busy” like a badge of honour - does not help. It sells the misconceptions:
- Working long work hours will show your dedication and value.
- Pushing yourself harder will accomplish your next goal.
- Ploughing in extra time will prove how indispensable you are.
All that this truly accomplishes is to foster a company culture that supports an unhealthy desire to be productive at all times, at all costs, placing employees’ worth in how much they produce and demolishing the line between work and personal life.
Here are six red flags shared by people who have succumbed to Bubble Worker Syndrome or toxic productivity in the workplace:
- Working overtime regularly. It is not abnormal to work extra hours to reach a tight deadline or finish a big project. However, this practice can quickly turn toxic when it becomes the norm. This includes working after hours and on weekends, starting early to get a jump on work before the workday starts, and checking and responding to work emails and WhatsApp during personal time. The difference between falling foul of Bubble Worker Syndrome and being overworked? Regularly putting in extra hours because you feel compelled to do so is a red flag, while doing this out of necessity means you are likely overloaded with work.
- Feeling guilty about not getting enough work done. People suffering from toxic productivity or who cannot disassociate from work often strive to complete an exceptional amount of work instead of what is reasonable. In a culture that equates happiness and success with achievement, it has become more difficult to manage the nagging feeling that we are not doing enough if we are not always productive.
- Only wanting to partake in activities that have a clear purpose. People who suffer from Bubble Worker Syndrome or toxic productivity often feel like they are wasting time if they are not working to achieve a specific goal. Thus, they may avoid “unproductive” activities like spending time with friends and family, or just relaxing.
- Deprioritising self-care. For people who believe they are wasting time if they are not working, self-care seems like a poor use of time. This leads to giving scant attention to things like rest, cooking healthy meals, and spending time with family and friends. Such a person may skip meals or put off exercise if it is deemed to get in the way of work. They will refrain from taking leave and down social invitations.
- Experiencing chronic stress and anxiety. Despite the store they put in being productive, trying to be “on” all the time can take a serious toll on mental and physical wellbeing. People who cannot cut off from work, and invest their personal time in doing more, might still feel stressed about all the work they have to do and be anxious that they are not doing enough. Depression is also a common symptom for people who become disconnected from loved ones and activities they used to enjoy.
- Feeling burnt out. When people push themselves too hard for too long, burnout usually follows. The compulsion to work unreasonably long hours takes the joy out of everyday activities and eventually, unrelenting stress, anxiety and depression can lead to burnout and other physical and mental health issues.
3 Tips to break the bonds of Bubble Worker Syndrome
Do not wait until you feel exhausted to take a break or fall into bed for a few hours’ sleep before dragging yourself up to face a new day.
- Work for 50 minutes and then take a break for 10. Turn off your laptop for at least 10 minutes at the top of the hour. Put your phone on silent and put away distracting devices. Stand, stretch, grab a drink or bite to eat or chat to a colleague – but not about work.
- Commit to taking active lunch breaks. Walk, take a yoga class, or go for a swim – anything that will get your heart pumping and revitalise you after long hours spent sitting at your desk or in front of your laptop.
- Have fun without technology. The best way to prevent bubble worker syndrome is to eliminate the sources that fuel it. Make a resolution to get out of the house for an hour or two each day and have some fun away from your digital devices – or anything else that can keep you connected to your emails and phones at work.
3 Tips to avoid the toxic productivity loop
The inclination to achieve and succeed is not necessarily bad, but when productivity is taken to excessive levels it can lead to stress, anxiety, burnout and neglected relationships.
- Reframe success. The problem with prioritising productivity is that work and material accomplishment become the measure of success. This cannot change if you see no value in things like mental wellbeing or quality time spent with loved ones. But this mentality is a trap since overworking can negatively affect your health and damage important relationships. Strive to find balance by working toward your goals while also caring for yourself and your loved ones.
- Set personal boundaries. Channeling productivity into your personal life is not resting – it is just another toxic productivity outlet. Set boundaries between times of personal productivity and rest, too. To do this, create a schedule for tasks like cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking and exercise to avoid overworking during your leisure time.
- Choose an accountability partner. People who are influenced by toxic productivity find it hard to slow down because they are addicted to the good feelings that accompany accomplishment. Choose a person you trust and chat with them about the way your over-productivity manifests and give them permission to hold you accountable for how you want to change. They can point out when you have slipped back into taking on too much or prioritising work output over other important areas of your life.
It is important to note that neither Bubble Worker Syndrome nor toxic productivity is an official clinical diagnosis. However, they are both very real phenomena that can occur when a person constantly feels tuned into their work or compelled to accomplish or create something – to the detriment of their wellbeing. These syndromes can both be a manifestation of negative underlying feelings not addressed. To really stop the cycle, it is essential to identify and deal with these feelings. Enlisting professional support can be hugely beneficial in breaking ingrained habits that feel beyond one’s control, particularly if they are rooted in deeper issues.