Beware of Productivity Paranoia

As more employees are being monitored at work, paranoia can set in. Here are some expert management tips to combat it before it's too late.

By L'Oreal Thompson Payton June 13, 2023
The new age of hybrid work has people stressed on both sides. Managers aren’t sure if they can fully trust that remote workers are actually working. Meanwhile, employees are feeling constant pressure to always be on and ready to respond to every email notification within a moment’s notice. Welcome to the world of productivity paranoia. Defined by Microsoft as a scenario “where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased,” productivity paranoia is most commonly found in remote and hybrid work environments.

Productivity paranoia is so prevalent that companies have invested in expensive technology—ranging from tracking software and surveillance cameras to GPS data—to monitor their employees’ whereabouts and active time online, with 97 percent of business leaders surveyed believing such software has increased workers’ productivity. But when managers must keep such close track of staff, it can come at a cost: Those who are monitored tend to be less loyal and more distrustful of their managers. As a result, productivity paranoia can create a work environment where employees are constantly stressed and on edge. 

While managers may not be able to do away with monitoring mandates from the powers that be, there are ways to implement trust and psychological safety with your team. It all begins with setting clear expectations on your team to foster a collaborative workplace, leading by example when it comes to abiding by work hours and nonwork hours and understanding that everyone organizes their workflow differently.

What Managers Can Do

Hatim Rahman, an assistant professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, says it’s on managers to implement and enforce boundaries when it comes to how your team works. “As a team, you can decide not to send emails on the weekend or not have meetings on a certain day, but you have to make these policies mandatory or else they’re unlikely to stick,” he says.

The key is having a workplace culture where employees feel trusted and safe enough to not constantly be plugged in, and one where there is flexibility in terms of when and how the work is getting done. 

“The main responsibility is with managers to set the culture and provide employees with the resources they need to succeed,” says Rahman. “Ultimately, that’s going to lead to better outcomes, less turnover, and less burnout. But they have to lead by example.”

What Employees Can Do 

As for individual contributors grappling with productivity paranoia, Rahman recommends compartmentalizing. “If I’m thinking about work when I’m with my kids, then I’m half a good parent,” he says. “If I’m thinking of my kids when I’m at work, then I’m half a good worker. But compartmentalizing is often easier said than done.” 

To help your brain distinguish between work hours and personal time, Rahman suggests intentionally blocking off your calendar for dedicated work time (read: no meetings) and personal matters, such as therapy, workouts, school drop-off and pickup, as well as breaks. According to research, even a 10-minute microbreak can help you recover from work and replenish energy, as well as improve your mental well-being and productivity. 

“It’s widely thought that the average adult’s focused attention span is between 90 and 120 minutes and peaks at about 45 minutes,” Tanya Tarr, a behavioral scientist and president of Cultivated Insights previously told Fortune. “Taking a 10-minute break between a working interval of up to 90 minutes can help reset your attention span and keep cognitive momentum going for another focused 90-minute work interval. You have to pace yourself and let your brain catch its figurative breath.” 

Having a hard end time for logging off for the day can also be beneficial to hybrid employees. 
“One of the benefits of going into an office is there’s a clear time when you’re at work and when you’re off work,” Rahman says. “For people who work remotely, these boundaries get blurred, so it’s important that you force yourself as best as possible to create that structure for yourself.”  

To fight the urge to always be on, Rahman suggests clearly communicating when you’ll be away from your computer to help decrease feelings of anxiety. Effectively using your calendar and Slack statuses can combat productivity paranoia on behalf of workers. 

“Learning to compartmentalize properly and efficiently can lead to less chances of burnout and more productivity,” Rahman says. “And it’s about knowing that when you’re taking that time away, you’re not being less productive or less hardworking.” 
This article was written by L'Oreal Thompson Payton from Fortune and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to


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