The Problem With Productivity: Redefining Productivity and Meaning Post-COVID-19

The Problem With Productivity: Redefining Productivity and Meaning Post-COVID-19

Maria Kordowicz
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6754-8.ch008
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In this chapter, the author problematises and challenges the mantra of productivity as an occupational raison d'etre. She argues that equating an effective worker with their capacity for productive output over meaningful outcome undermines employee well-being and human-centred values. She explores the impact of neoliberalism on work and the individualisation of the worker and argues that productivity has gained the status of a value. Lastly, the author outlines a range of solutions in the second part of the chapter and explores the rise of recent socio-political movements which redefine rest and contemplative practices as tools of rebellion against the ruthless neoliberal push for productivity.
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Productivity Ubiquity

This chapter is an expansion of an opinion piece I wrote for The British Psychological Society’s The Psychologist Magazine entitled “You are more than your productivity: discovering meaning post COVID-19”. The original article was inspired by a meme entitled an “Anti-capitalist Love Note” with pushback against the status quo simply worded as ‘you are more than your productivity (source unknown). Productivity as a value has become an inadequately contested, yet an accepted and embodied norm in neoliberal societies. My opinion piece has been the most read piece of my writing since the start of my academic career journey, and there were points when it was difficult to find the capacity to respond to all those who took the time to reach out to me over social media and email about how much the article had struck a chord with them. Many came forward stating how the article had helped them to make sense of the stress and burnout they were suffering and how it had given them the confidence to resist productivity pressures. Whilst these are my anecdotal reflections, I cannot help thinking that this reader response was further evidence of the existence of tangible malady resulting from the pervasiveness of the productivity dogma.

Productivity can be defined as the rate of output and the efficiency of production. We can think of it as the output one creates relative to the level of input over a period of time (Tangen, 2005). Therefore, productivity is typically understood to be doing lots in the shortest amount of time. Increasingly, productivity is conceptualised as a continuous reduction of input (for instance, decreased staffing and financial resource) whilst maximising gain, often without an upper limit. Productivity growth had seemingly reached a threshold in advanced economies pre-COVID-19, though productivity zeal continues in its ubiquity regardless.

Productivity assesses business operations in terms of allocated resources in relation to yield. Measuring productivity therefore allows business leaders to draw conclusions about whether these resources are effective in terms of achieving the desired business outcomes – usually driven by the bottom line, in other words, profitability. ‘Resource allocation’ also refers to the utilisation of human beings. The worth of workers is defined in dehumanising terms here – the extent to which they generate income for the business through maximum effort and minimal direct reward. This narrative of productivity sees the worker as collateral - of merit to their employer only when able to generate yield at pace.

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