Toxic Productivity in Academia and How to Overcome It

Expecting ourselves and others to continue working as normal – and sometimes even harder than normal – is not only unrealistic, it’s unsustainable. It’s downright cruel. It’s the definition of toxic productivity.

Who is the work you’re doing for? 

Is the work you’re doing (or that you’re asking others to do) really so important that it’s worth sacrificing your mental health and overall wellbeing? (Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka would say no, it isn’t.)

Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics

The Work-Life Balance Myth?

A few years ago I attended a workshop led by an alum from my department on getting a job in publishing. It specifically highlighted how graduate school uniquely prepared us to be successful in that field. Two things stood out to me from the presentation. 

First, it’s really about who you know, and less about skills. 

Second, graduate students are perfect for these positions because they have no qualms about working nights and weekends.

Now, both of these claims are pretty egregious, but I had less of a problem with the first than with the second. When the comment was made about having no problems with working nights and weekends, I was quick to (internally, yet firmly) disagree.

Something that I am working really hard to cultivate is a good, sustainable work-life balance. Despite the fact that I wrote one of my first blog posts on the subject, I still haven’t totally figured it out. (I will say that having a romantic partner has significantly improved my relationship with work. However, this is only one strategy and it may not work or be desirable for others in similar situations.)

The suggestion that all graduate students are comfortable with working nights and weekends is just one of many manifestations of the toxic productivity mentality. It’s so deeply ingrained in academic culture that overworking is often spoken of as a desirable trait, rather than what it really is: unhealthy. 

Toxic Productivity

“In many ways, “toxic productivity” is just a buzzy new term for workaholism ― but it’s also a little more nuanced than that old-school phrase. Toxic productivity is essentially an unhealthy desire to be productive at all times, at all costs. It’s the need to go the “extra mile” at work or at home, even when it’s not expected of you.”

Brittany Wong for HuffPost

The solution to this problem is often posed in terms of changing one’s mentality. We must learn to “set realistic goals” and accept that resting, a.k.a taking breaks, is restorative and necessary.

But who sets the standard for what sorts of goals are realistically attainable?

And how can one possibly see breaks as restorative when we are expected to be productive 365 days out of the year? Can academics ever really have “summer break”?

Whenever someone outside of the field asks me about my work, they are always in awe that I spend my summers in Greece, no doubt imagining a lovely summer holiday. 

But the reality, I always tell them, is that, in a normal year, my summers are actually about 90% work and 10% vacation, if I’m lucky.

When we have other obligations or interests that conflict with our usual responsibilities – doing fieldwork, conducting research, writing – our commitment to the field is often called into question, regardless of the nature of the conflict. 

Productive work is too often defined restrictively, making us believe that if we aren’t engaging in what is considered to be acceptable productive work, we aren’t doing enough.

This usually amounts to writing, studying, or practicing a field-specific skill for a certain amount of time each day, which ultimately produces something tangible that can be evaluated by one’s peers or superiors.

God forbid we treat the summer as the break it really is.

The Bigger Picture

The most common remedy proposed for ameliorating the effects of toxic productivity is learning to set realistic goals. But, as I mentioned above, there are several problems with this approach.

First, let’s return to who sets the standard for what counts as realistically achievable.

What this approach does is put the burden squarely on the shoulders of individuals, rather than the systems which reinforce this culture. It isn’t just students who need to learn to set realistic goals. Our advisors, professors, departments, and larger institutions need to reevaluate their expectations, too. 

If you wouldn’t give up your nights and weekends to work, why would you expect your students to?

And if some expectations are less flexible than others, they should be transparent about the reasons those expectations exist. For example, if you expect all students to finish their dissertations on a certain timeline, explain where that timeline came from in the first place.

Is it because of financial restrictions? Space limitations? Institutional pressure?

Be open about what guides certain expectations, and also be open to listening to and supporting students when they have concerns about meeting them.

A second problem is that even though we know what the standard is, this doesn’t mean that we know how to get there.

I write a lot about the hidden curriculum on this blog, but time management is notoriously difficult to teach. Most professors emphasize the importance of it, but then leave us to figure it out on our own. It’s like kicking a kid into a pool and telling them to swim without providing them with the necessary steps to do it. 

At the very least give them (us) some flotation devices so they don’t drown in the process.

Sink or Swim: Overcoming Toxic Productivity

Hopefully it’s clear now that the problems with toxic productivity are both individual and structural, and that it shouldn’t be up to individuals to find their own solutions to them. 

I’m all for saying we should stick it to the man and really enjoy our summer breaks. Turn off our laptops for the next month and ignore all our academic responsibilities until the beginning of September.

However, that’s just not possible for many of us, thanks to the external pressures we face. 

So, what’s an overworked student to do? 

Remember these three things:

It’s okay if your productivity doesn’t look like someone else’s.

Productivity comes in many different forms.

You don’t have to have finished that article or chapter, or conquered that Latin translation to feel accomplished. Even smaller achievements, like meeting your word count goal, making a plan for the next month, or simply opening up your notes to review them counts.

What productive work looks like is totally up to you and your personal goals.

It’s okay to admit that things are hard.

If you hadn’t noticed, we’re all struggling right now.

The pressure to perform, on top of a global pandemic, chaos on #ClassicsTwitter, racism and social injustice around the world, has burnt us all out to varying degrees. It took me a while to accept it, but it’s okay to admit that you just can’t do it – all of it, any of it – right now. 

My grandma passed away at the end of June, after I’d spent several weeks establishing a good writing routine for the first time in months. But in the days leading up to the funeral I couldn’t work. I just didn’t want to. 

When a relative asked me if I was working on my dissertation on the day before the funeral, I snapped back at him “no”, offended that he expected me to work even while I was grieving.

This is an extreme example, but the message is that you should never feel compelled to work hard – or work at all – when you’re having a tough time. 

In the words of Naomi Osaka, it’s okay not to be okay.

Naomi Osaka at the Tokyo Olympics

Whether you’ve lost someone, are burnt out, are struggling financially or otherwise, it’s okay to admit that things are too hard right now and give yourself permission to take some time off. 

The work will still be there when you come back.

It’s okay to ask for help.

If that upcoming deadline is stressing you out, talk to someone about it. Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you need more time?

Asking for help – such as extending a deadline – can potentially alleviate some of the pressure you feel to perform under particular time constraints. You can also ask for other things, like resources or pointers for how to better approach a particular task.

And, of course, seeking out professional help is yet another option available to you.

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