Is productivity costing us everything?

I’ve always prided myself on my productivity, and being someone who could be relied on—is where I am needed and someone who helped others. It is also the source of my value; I only had value if I gave and did. It has always felt normal because I wasn’t alone. Everywhere I looked was a focus on productivity and praise for those who accomplished it. 

There was a saying at the company I worked for, “do more with less.” It was not just words on a wall; it was the culture and the foundation of every action we were to take. Get more work done and make more profit with less payroll, time, staff, resources, support, etc. 

Getting productivity and efficiency out of staff minimizing costs has always been the business model of capitalism. We celebrate it constantly. We are fearful for our jobs when we aren’t successful and praised when we are. Dopamine flows through us from the accomplishment and being recognized for it, which not only motivates us to do more precisely as it is being demanded of us.

What is dopamine?

A group of nerves produce Dopamine in the middle of the brain, which helps nerve cells send messages to each other and other parts of the brain. Having the right amount of dopamine is essential for the body and brain. It makes us feel pleasure and satisfaction. Motivation increases driving us to continue to seek and repeat pleasurable activities. Healthy levels improve mood, memory, sleep, movement, concentration, and focus. 

Craving the Reward

But we can start craving more of this dopamine ‘reward’ caused by many pleasant experiences. Such as eating excellent food, having sex, winning a game, getting likes on our social media, and earning money. These higher dopamine levels can lead to feelings of euphoria, bliss, and enhanced motivation and concentration. We feel good, really good, but having too much dopamine isn’t healthy. Whether overall or when parts of the brain have dopamine concentration and deficiency in others, we suffer. We become more competitive, aggressive, and have poor impulse control. This, when combined with the dopamine surge caused by Alcohol and many illegal drugs, is partly why people get addicted to them. This imbalance can also lead to conditions like ADHD, binge eating, addiction, and gambling. 

Dopamine Deficiency

We can also experience dopamine deficiency. Some of the causes could be a mental illness, stress, not getting enough sleep, drug abuse, being obese, or overeating sugar and saturated fat. A problem with the adrenal glands can also cause low dopamine. Having low dopamine levels can make us less motivated and excited about things. It’s linked to some mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, and psychosis. 

Some symptoms related to a dopamine deficiency include muscle cramps, spasms, tremors, aches, pains, stiffness, and loss of balance. As well as constipation, difficulty eating and swallowing, weight loss or weight gain, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), frequent pneumonia. We have trouble sleeping, low energy, an inability to focus, moving or speaking more slowly than usual, feeling fatigued. Feeling demotivated, inexplicably sad, or tearful, mood swings, hopelessness, having low self-esteem, guilt-ridden. We can be anxious, have a low sex drive, hallucinate, delusions, lack insight or self-awareness, and thoughts of self-harm and suicide. We can boost dopamine by addressing the cause of the problem., but that can be easier said than done. 

It’s getting worse

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a non-profit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington DC. They conduct research and analysis on the economic status of working America and propose public policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers.

In their Working Economics Blog, “Growing inequalities, reflecting growing employer power, have generated a productivity–pay gap since 1979,” Author Lawrence Mishel says productivity and pay used to climb together. But productivity has grown 3.5 times as much as pay for the typical worker. If median hourly compensation had grown at the same rate as productivity over the 1979-2019 period, the median worker would be making $9.00 more per hour.

Does our focus on productivity lead to burnout?

I never even questioned it. Isn’t that the goal to use our time wisely, achieve, and be productive? If you had asked me this question six months ago, my answer would have been yes. But then, it all changed. 

A few of my closest friends and family started to share their concerns, but the praise and feeling of success quickly drowned them out. Then, like a wave that I never saw coming, I was drowning. 

The signs have been there for so long; exhaustion, achy body, foggy mind, eye fatigue, difficulty with digestion, feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and easily agitated. Honestly, they were badges of honour. Our suffering is completely overlooked in a society that praises accomplishment and a culture of “do more with less.”

Healing my productivity addiction

You may wonder why I use the word addiction here; the honest answer is I haven’t found a word that more perfectly describes my experience. Addiction is “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.” I needed to achieve success and be praised for my accomplishments to feel good about myself, and I burned my body to the ground every day. How could I describe it as anything else? I’m not alone! On December 2nd, 2021, Benefits Canada reported that the “burnout rate was about 81 percent with at least 34 percent of the Canadians surveyed describing their level of burnout as high or extreme.” 

I don’t have all the answers, nor am I completely healed. This is the thing about addiction; the thoughts don’t change just because we choose to stop acting on them. In my experience, they get louder for a while. Rewiring my beliefs will take time, and learning to see the thoughts for what they are will be a daily fought battle for a bit. 

Three things help me every day

  1. Allowing support. This means sharing how I really am with people who have earned the right to sit with me in my shame. It means I don’t hide it when I’m struggling with burnout behaviour or when I need help. So, my first recommendation is to allow the amazing people in your life to contribute to you.
  2. I needed to learn to love myself for exactly who I am today. This has taken a lot of therapy, and loving the shadow parts of me. 
  3. I needed to find healthy ways to get dopamine that had nothing to do with achievement. Things like getting enough sleep, exercising, listening to music, meditating, and spending time in the sun can boost dopamine levels.

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