Mental Health and Productivity
Mental health and productivity are closely intertwined. Poor mental health—most often in the form of depression, anxiety, or burnout—can severely decrease motivation and output while heightening stress, which may have serious consequences for an individual and his or her relationships. Other mental health disorders, such as ADHD, can interfere with focus and attention and make it significantly harder to get things done.
Treating mental health challenges, as well as promoting well-being more generally, often come with boosts in productivity. But productivity is far from the only reason to seek treatment, in fact, productivity as one’s sole end goal can in itself interfere with mental health and overall quality of life. Relationships, health, relaxation, and a larger sense of meaning—beyond simply checking things off a to-do list—all contribute to long-term life satisfaction, and one goal of productivity is to make time and space for a well-rounded existence.
ADHD, Depression, Anxiety and Other Culprits
Different mental health disorders may have different symptoms, but their effect on productivity can seem very similar to the untrained eye; trouble focusing, difficulty maintaining motivation, and problems with memory can appear whether someone has ADHD, depression, or anxiety. Burnout, too, can manifest as similar symptoms, but it is not technically a mental health disorder; it is currently classified as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization. Those wondering if they are struggling with burnout, depression, or something else should first examine the domains in which their symptoms appear. If they only feel unfocused and ineffective at work, for instance, but aren’t struggling elsewhere, it may be indicative of burnout. If problems persist in all domains of life, they are more likely to be dealing with another mental health disorder such as depression. Seeking an accurate diagnosis can be an important step to ameliorating the problem.
Can ADHD make someone less productive?
In some cases, yes. ADHD symptoms related to inattention can make it more difficult for someone to focus on the task at hand; they may be easily distracted or drift off into daydreaming. Hyperactive symptoms, too, can hinder productivity. Someone who feels physically restless, for instance, may stand or move around frequently, and will likely find it difficult to complete a task that requires them to stay seated or in one place. On the other hand, some people with ADHD experience periods of “hyperfocus,” in which they are able to focus intently for certain periods of time. It is possible to exploit hyperfocus to heighten one’s productivity.
Does depression interfere with productivity?
At both individual and societal levels, depression interferes greatly with productivity. On the job, depressed employees are estimated to cost billions in lost output and increased healthcare costs each year.
When a depressed individual feels unable to get anything done in their day-to-day life—from their workplace responsibilities to small, routine tasks at home to fun activities that they used to enjoy—it can exact a heavy mental toll. In the face of unending despair, many depressed people find themselves more prone to curling up on the couch for hours than diving into a new project or tackling their to-do list. While this is a common and understandable response, feeling unproductive for long periods of time can compound depression and may lead to additional consequences, such as a lost job or accumulating bills.
Is it possible to be productive even when you’re depressed?
Yes. Some people attempt to cope with depression by over-focusing on being productive; this is more likely if symptoms of lethargy are less prominent. Getting things done—even small, relatively meaningless tasks—can help distract someone from the negative emotions and apathy that are inherent to depression. While “small wins” and an overall feeling of productivity can help push back against depression, some high-energy individuals may use hyperproductivity to mask their depression or attempt to ignore its existence.
Why is it so hard to get things done when I’m anxious?
Though short-term, situation-based anxiety—the nerves one feels before taking a test, for instance—can increase alertness and potentially boost performance, chronic anxiety often gets in the way of getting things done. Physical symptoms, like restlessness or tension, can make it harder to sit still or to concentrate on a task at hand. Anxiety can also disrupt sleep, further damaging focus.
The cognitive symptoms of anxiety are often the biggest obstacles to productivity. Excessive worrying can consume someone’s thoughts, making it difficult for them to focus on what they’re doing, plan ahead, or remember what they need to do next. Anxiety is also a major driver of procrastination; if someone is worried that they won’t get a project right or that their boss secretly dislikes them, for example, they may put off starting the task in an attempt to avoid those negative feelings and dreaded outcomes.
How can I tell if I’m burned out?
The key symptoms of work-related burnout include physical and emotional exhaustion; a feeling of dread associated with going to work or completing tasks while there; and feelings of cynicism, apathy, and depression that are primarily present in a work-related context. It’s also possible for parents or other caregivers to experience burnout; in this case, symptoms will be similar, but will be primarily related to one’s role as a parent/caregiver. For more about recognizing and treating burnout, see “Burnout.”
Boosting Productivity and Well-Being
Taking steps to bolster mental health and improve well-being isn’t always easy. But it’s worth the effort more often than not. While in the case of a mental health disorder, an accurate diagnosis can help tailor professional treatment, it isn’t always necessary. There are many lifestyle approaches—such as prioritizing sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and setting boundaries between work and life—that can provide some measure of relief, regardless of one’s specific challenges. In addition to directly targeting negative symptoms, improving well-being in the long-term may also require taking a step back and assessing the big picture. Many people find that maximizing well-being requires balancing their desire for productivity with other important priorities such as rest, relationships, and a larger sense of purpose.
What should I do if I’m burned out?
When someone is burning out at work, they should first identify what is causing feelings of burnout and attempt to address them head-on. Researchers have highlighted several common culprits, including excess workload, lack of autonomy or control, negative workplace environments, an organization’s unfair or unethical practices, or value conflicts.
Potential solutions include setting hard boundaries between work and life, talking to supervisors about reducing workload or addressing cultural toxicity, and prioritizing healthy sleep, diet, and exercise. Seeking therapy, too, can be helpful for addressing feelings of inadequacy or anxiety. If these short-term solutions do not provide relief, seeking a new job—or switching career paths altogether—may be necessary.
Will treating anxiety or depression improve my productivity?
Boosting productivity is only one of the myriad benefits of properly treating anxiety and depression. Along with improved mood, more fulfilling relationships, and reduced stress, those who find an anxiety or depression treatment that works for them often report heightened focus, motivation, and energy to tackle important tasks and devote attention to what matters most. Treatment can include psychotherapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination. (To find a professional to treat anxiety or depression, visit the Psychology Today therapy directory.)
How does ADHD treatment affect productivity?
Effective ADHD treatment—whether via medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, dietary changes, exercise, or otherwise—will usually come with a marked increase in productivity. Medication, which directly targets symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity, can make it easier for an individual to focus. Therapy, on the other hand, often focuses on teaching individuals skills for staying organized and motivated, while also addressing the maladaptive thought patterns that can interfere with productivity. Lifestyle changes, notably diet and exercise, can help the brain produce key neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, that are thought to be low in the brains of those with ADHD and that are critical to motivation, learning, and attention.
How can I balance productivity and my mental health?
Productivity is valuable, both for societies and individuals. But it is possible to prioritize productivity too much, to the detriment of one’s mental health—potentially triggering stress, burnout, or apathy.
Those seeking more balance can start by drawing strict boundaries between work and the rest of their life—not checking work email after-hours, for instance—as well as allowing for more unstructured time outside of work. In a culture that glamorizes busyness, it can feel like a waste of time to do nothing. But many of the most successful people deliberately make room for rest, with good reason. The brain and body need time to recharge, for starters. But rest can itself bolster future productivity by heightening creativity and allowing time for the mind to wander; the biggest proponents of idleness argue that deliberate rest is key to some of their best ideas.