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For a healthy mind, body and business

Toxic productivity and why women work too much: Interview with Tamu Thomas for IWD 2024

It was 2017 when Tamu Thomas was on her way to court, where she was having to give evidence, when she suddenly had to stop and grab hold of the bus stop. Unable to move, she felt as if she couldn’t walk and the ground was disappearing beneath her. “I felt as if I was going to die,” she says.

She had been struggling with heightened periods of anxiety but unaware that she was living with severe levels of depression, compromised immunity, and what she was experiencing were panic attacks.

Tamu is a self-described “toxic productivity addict in recovery”. In the early 2000s, as a social worker, she was ill – and had been for a long time – but in denial. The more she had to do, the more was trying to do, telling herself she was lazy, and needed to work harder. When she realised she needed some help, she consulted a nutritional therapist to try to fix the problem. “I didn’t realise you couldn’t out-eat or out-exercise complete depletion.”

She continued to live in a “consistent state of burnout” until that day in 2017 when she decided something had to change. “Something had to give, and it was not going to me, and it was not going to be my child,” she says.

She left her role and started a business, coaching and supporting women in a similar situation. Women who were trapped in the culture of toxic productivity, conditioned to overwork in order to be seen as successful.

Why women work too much

In her new book, Women Who Work Too Much, Tamu looks at how women have gone unsupported in the workplace for decades, and the impact this has had on their health and happiness. When we talk, she takes us back to the 1970s and the period of economic downturn that meant more women were encouraged to enter the workforce with the idea that they could ‘have it all’.

The problem, argues Tamu, is that “the infrastructure to support women having it all was never put in place, and is still not in place so, ‘you can have it all’ became ‘you can do it all’.”

The narrative was one women now know all too well. “This super mother, a woman who worked like she didn’t have children, and parented like she didn’t work, became prevalent,” says Tamu. “It was pushed so much that women started to believe they were failing if they couldn’t work full time, operate like a man in the workplace, and then be this demure homemaker when they were at home.”

“The people who were subject to that were late boomers and older Gen X, who gave birth to millennials,” she says. This perpetuated the problem into the next generation. “So now we are where we are with women operating at toxic levels of productivity in every sphere to be able to keep up with this narrative. It’s like an invisible psychological and social contract has been constructed that says you will deplete yourself in order to be seen as constructive, productive, valuable… If you’re not doing that, it’s your fault and you’re failing.”

The glorification of busy

I know all too well that being busy can become our default mode. The phrase can even be worn as a badge of honour in a society that glorifies all the doing. So, is the idea of productivity addictive?

Absolutely. “It is a seductress,” says Tamu, describing how it feeds our ego. Just as with a drug, we can “use productivity as a means of avoiding how we feel because we haven’t been taught to be with our feelings, or how to process our feelings,” she says. “We are so constantly running from one task to the next, chasing that high.”

It is something she remembers well as she was celebrated for always being the one to get on and sort it. “Even though inside my heart was in tatters as yet again, I was having to arrange childcare for my child, my ego was vey rewarded and appreciative for the fact they knew I could, even though I was abandoning what I needed and what my child needed.”

Toxic productivity and the impact on women’s wellbeing

It is this idea of abandoning our own needs in order to be regarded as successful or simply to meet society’s expectations that has worked its way into how we operate both within and outside of the workplace.

How we think of periods is also a way we neglect our needs, and dismiss our bodies’ natural processes. As women, we have four seasons every month whilst we are menstruating. “None of that is taken into consideration,” says Tamu. “I’m not saying we should only do energetic work when we are ovulating; it’s knowing that when I am in my luteal phase and a few days from menstruating, I have less energy.”

If women know what support they need at that time, she says, we don’t compromise ourselves, or our output. Yet she says the comments we hear generally imply: “She is hysterical, she is hormonal, she is on her period, it must be PMT… Hormones are chemical and they have a real impact on our experience of life.”

“We internalise those messages because men – straight, able-bodied, white, middle class men are heralded as the standard, and when we don’t meet that standard it’s because there’s a defect.”

She believes we need to start understanding each other – and ourselves – more so that we can complement each other, rather than have women try to change themselves to fit the patriarchal mould.

stressed woman in the office
Antoni Shkraba, Pexels

“It’s like an invisible psychological and social contract has been constructed that says you will deplete yourself in order to be seen as constructive, productive, valuable… If you’re not doing that, it’s your fault and you’re failing.”

Tamu Thomas

Uncomfortable choices

The challenges facing women are not just about health problems and burnout. There are real economic and social consequences when women are not supported to thrive at work. The gender pay-gap is estimated to take over 50 years to close. An 18 year-old woman entering the workforce today is unlikely to see pay parity in her lifetime. On top of this, the gender pension gap is even higher. According to the OECD, the pension gap between men and women is on average 25% in European countries. Research from Legal and General highlights that in the UK this could be even higher, with some women having a pension pot 55% smaller than men by the time they reach retirement.

“It means that women are backed into a corner where they have to choose between the ambition they have for themselves and the type of parent they want to be. It doesn’t need to be this way,” says Tamu.

The power of flexibility

There are still many structures that are inadequate for lots of women such as childcare, equal parental leave, and firms mandating a return to office. However, the ability to work from home and have flexible working, in the many different forms it can take, opens up real opportunities. It means women don’t have to take a step back in their careers in order to raise a family, care for parents, or manage their menopause symptoms.

The 2023 Women in The Workplace report by McKinsey and LeanIn stated: one in five women say flexibility has helped them stay in their job or avoid reducing their hours. 

“There is so much evidence that supports the fact flexible working helps people become more productive,” says Tamu. “It helps people become more committed and more loyal to the companies they work for because they feel seen, they feel valued, they feel heard… They’re not neglecting huge swathes of their lives in order to be productive for the workplace, which fosters more commitment and staff retention.”

In her own work within companies, she says the people who embrace flexible working “like that they have time at home and time in the office as it gives them the opportunity to work in a manner that feels humane for them.”

She says the governance, politics and legislation now needs to catch up with where people are now.

How we change the toxic productivity culture at work

Changing the narrative is not simple. As Tamu says, “It has taken centuries to get to this position – it will take a long time to undo…”

We need to start listening. Leaders need to start listening.

“It would be great to have focus groups with women so that information is filtered through and shared with decision makers. Decision makers then need to meet with the women and just listen. Not listen to try and fix or suggest. Just listen to understand and get curious about the things they automatically want to say no to or automatically disagree with.”

She believes we may avoid the exploratory conversations because they often open up more questions than answers. We can feel as if we aren’t moving forwards with any decision. But it is when we sit in the messy middle of questions, problems and open curiosity that it “allows the truth to emerge” and eventually, policies to change.

“Generally, women find it difficult to be candid and as open in mixed gender groups as they do with themselves because it hasn’t been encouraged. It needs to start there… It needs to start with women sharing their experience with other women and then sharing it beyond women,” Tamu says.

As individuals, she says women need to start speaking up and sharing data. “It means women aren’t left in a situation where things fester until they become described as ‘emotional or hysterical’ or ‘whiny and complaining’.”

By sharing facts based on observations and experiences, Tamu says the messages move from: ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ or, ‘My workload is unfair’, to: ‘I have identified that this is when I work best. I have noticed I am more productive when this happens. I can deliver better presentations and get more results from clients in this situation.’

“Giving evidence supporting how you work best ultimately supports the organisation,” says Tamu. The problem she finds is that “because of the systems in which we live, we don’t understand ourselves. We don’t understand what enables us to get the best out of ourselves.”

“Decision makers need to meet with the women and just listen. Not listen to try and fix or suggest. Just listen to understand and get curious about the things they automatically want to say no to or automatically disagree with.”

Tamu Thomas

Inspiring Inclusion

The theme for International Women’s Day 2024 is #investinwomen and #accelerateprogress. Tamu wants to see that with quantifiable action, not just conversations.

“We are the ones who are being marginalised. We are the ones being oppressed, but on top of that we are the ones being tasked with solutions… We don’t have the power to make the change on our own so it’s about working in tandem with the decision makers. It’s about having your inclusivity as a living breathing value that permeates through your organisation, not just for a day here or there where we have cosy conversations and feel empowered.”

Women have been conditioned into thinking we need to constantly improve to fit in. “We don’t need more self-improvement. We are improved! We are improved to the hilt. We need systemic change.” she says. She likens it to a working in a muddy field. “We come home, do our ‘improvement’ and clean the boots. Then we go straight back out into the muddy field. Let’s sort out the muddy field, that’s where the issue it, not us.”

Tamu Thomas

Tamu Thomas is a business coach and author of Women Who Work Too Much.

She works to help people build lives that support our collective wellbeing instead of relegating our lives to being in service to work.

livethreesixty.com

About the author

Louise is an award-winning journalist and speaker who focuses on working from home, remote work and wellbeing. She is the founder of  The Homeworker, which is dedicated to helping you thrive when you work from home. The Homeworker publishes articles that are designed to keep you healthy, happy, fulfilled, and more productive in work and life.

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