Consecutive all-nighters. Relying on caffeine to stay awake. A kaleidoscope of coloured cells on Google Calendar. Replacing meals with instant ramen. Chronically teetering on the edge of burnout…
*finger gun on chin, smirkingly bites lip* ahahaha… just student culture am I right?
Toxic productivity, or the normalisation and glamorisation of constantly working oneself harder, faster, and more efficiently, permeates every aspect of university life. Hustle culture screams in its obnoxious black and white Bebas Neue font that if you’re not constantly riSiNg aND gRINdInG away your wellbeing and sanity, then you must be a complete failure. It guilts us into treating well-deserved study breaks as periods of “procrastination” or signs of inadequacy. It pressures us into taking on the maximum amount of extracurriculars our plate can hold as a temporary illusion of control and healthy self-esteem… In short, hustle culture is so unhealthy, its anthem might as well be “Toxic” by Britney Spears.
The biggest gripe I have personally with toxic productivity (aside from upping my general levels of anxiety) is that I am unable to separate external pressures from the internal expectations I have set for myself to do well. The blurred line between the two overwhelming forces makes it difficult to determine whether certain goals are to fulfil desires for external validation or actually an autonomous decision that aligns with my passions. It also renders the recognition and celebration of achievements virtually non-existent. I’m constantly preoccupied with doing “more” or being “better” to fill up this unsatisfiable void of insecurity. It’s pretty sad. Even more so when I fall into the trap of overworking as a band-aid solution, grasping onto some feeling of adequacy for a fleeting moment.
Luckily, I am not alone in these struggles. The overwhelming expectation to constantly be productive is an undercurrent experienced by many students. For social work student, Hayley, toxic productivity in simple terms means that “if you aren’t studying, you’re failing or falling behind.”
Yasmin, a Design and Arts conjoint student, feels “this [pressure] all the time. There’s an endless cycle of assignments and work to do. I don’t ever really get a break… I feel like it’s expected that I do more work during lockdown as I am home all the time as well.”
The pressure to constantly be busy or preoccupied with work is reflected in Law and Arts student, Tameka’s, perspective, who states that “I know from my university friends and myself that if we are not working/studying for something we don’t feel productive. It’s a strange feeling when you get a week ‘assignment free.’”
To meet the rising expectations of student life, many of us have resorted to drastic methods to complete work. Yasmin reports pulling “so many all-nighters… I have done things like being on a video call with a friend and screen-share so that they make sure I stay on task. I have eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner while doing uni work in order to get more work done. At my [part time job], I have done work during my breaks—whether it be doing the readings on my phone or assessment planning.”
Tameka, on the other hand, has resorted to cutting down leisure time to increase her levels of productivity including “book bans,” despite being a “lover of reading.” During exam season, she also “stops hanging out with friends,” as meeting up makes her feel “unproductive and [makes her] start to doubt herself.”
These behaviours are not only normalised, but are also celebrated and encouraged. Unhealthy sleeping patterns, the sacrificing of leisure and socialisation are seen as shining badges of honour. We’ve all been surrounded by peers who view being overworked as some kind of sick competition—which only works to legitimise toxic productivity’s stubborn grip over student culture.
Not only is our value as human beings reduced to our productive capacity, but hustle culture also propagates general feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Lockdown conditions have only exacerbated these qualities, often taking a tremendous toll on the wellbeing and mental health of students. Yasmin feels that “it’s really hard to keep motivated when there is this constant pressure to stay productive… sitting at home in front of my computer screen for hours on end is so so draining.”
The response of university staff to the struggles of remote learning have also been a polarising experience for many. Yasmin, unfortunately, went through an unexpected family event, some of her lecturers “were really empathetic and understanding” while others were not, with the “lack of sympathy and clarity” over obtaining an extension on assignments “was a cause of stress,” something she did not “need during an already stressful time.” This lack of compassion from some academic staff only reflects how little student wellbeing is valued when it comes to coursework expectations.
Learning in a competitive environment can also result in students drawing unhealthy comparisons between their progress and others within the same cohort. Hayley feels that “comparing to others is a detrimental part of university life, however, I don’t think it will leave anytime soon, even when we know people learn differently. Toxic productivity expectations have significantly impacted my own mental health… my own identity as a student has changed as I continue throughout my degree and it feels [dis]ingenuine [the] majority of the time. It’s getting pretty hard to live, laugh, love in these conditions.”
However, Tameka offers an alternative perspective. She feels that increased expectations of productivity have not impacted her mental health, overall. She states that “although there are definitely times when I beat myself up over not studying enough,” to combat these feelings, Tameka makes sure “to get back on track the next day or the next week.”
It seems that while students have different responses to dealing with the rising expectations to do well, evidently, hustle culture is arguably a universal experience for most students. Even though this is clearly a collective issue that operates on an institutional level, as individuals we can still reach out to friends who may be struggling in stressful times to offer our support. The only way we can break toxic productivity’s relentless cycle is through the active prioritisation of our own wellbeing and encouraging others to do the same.