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The Toxic Productivity Echo Chamber

Kirsten Murray on academic burn-out and experience battling the pressure to be productive

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Image Credit: Victoria Heath

"Your anonymised assignment was submitted successfully” – after panic submitting my dissertation a third and final time, I completed my degree. I am now free to brunch endlessly, free to drink with-out worrying about the next day’s inevitable hangover, and binge all those TV series that I felt guilty watching when I was supposed to be studying.

Writing my dissertation was intense – I could have had a child in the time I spent working on my dissertation. It was the first thing on my mind when I awoke and the last thing on my mind each night, and by the time I finished I could recite certain parts of it from memory. It was intense and life without it takes some adjusting, but I think what actually takes some adjusting to, is the fact that my sole goal is no longer to be productive, specifically academically productive.

Thanks to our good friend Covid, there hasn’t been much going on this past year, therefore it became increasingly difficult to stop academic pressure and an overall pressure to be productive took over. Sports, socials, clubs, and societies – all our outlets were taken away and all we had left to measure was our productivity. The voice in my head screamed “you should be working, there is nothing else to do, you have no excuse.”

This brings me to the inspiration behind this article, a YouTube video by StudyTuber-cum-trainee lawyer, Eve Cornwell. In her recent video, Cornwell discusses the idea of “the toxic productivity echochamber”, and how we can all breakout.

Lockdown accentuated our need to be constantly productive, whether it be baking banana bread, learning a language, or starting your own Etsy business, and with everyone working from home, it became increasingly difficult to achieve a work life balance. Having documented her law degree and training course, Cornwell now works as a trainee lawyer, using YouTube to upload reflective and thought-provoking videos. After her girlfriend told her that she grinds her teeth in her sleep, Cornwell reflects on her fear of being unproductive, remarking that recently “the inner voice in my head that makes me feel like I should constantly be working and feel guilty when I’m not working has become louder and louder, which I have realised means that I, alike most of Gen Z, have got stuck, trapped, and imprisoned in the toxic productivity echochamber.”

Gen Z are growing up in a very different time to our parents. Financial and job security is unstable, and over the last two decades there has been a 46.3 percent increase in the number of people aged 20 to 34 years old who still live with their parents. It is constantly reinforced just how hard it is for young people nowadays, therefore, the education system conditions us to believe that to be successful we must work harder than everyone else. Excellent grades are of paramount importance, but you also need to play sport, an instrument, have a part time job, volunteer, and have a catalogue of work experience ready to present to your future employer. It can feel as though, if you are not working towards your career five years prior to its beginning, then you’ll have a fat chance of getting anywhere.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that everything we do, must contribute to our career plan – the self has become a brand, and everything we do must be showcased to enhance our brand. Extra-curricular activities are no longer for fun, playing netball  shows you’re a team player, achieving your Grade eight in the saxophone shows your determination.

This idea of self-branding is most relevant to the rise of social media influencers - their life has become their brand. With YouTubers uploading ‘Morning and Night time Routines’, ‘What I Eat in A Day,’ and ‘A Day in the Life’ videos, it is no surprise that Gen Z see productivity in everything – even getting a Starbucks. Cornwell discusses how productivity is a social construct produced by our capitalist economic system. Capitalism relies on production, but production never stops, and we are conditioned to always want the next best thing.

Yet our economic system is manmade and being productive isn’t our main goal, as Cornwell points out “Wanting to be productive is a result of nurture not nature...no baby is born out of the womb like ‘I must get started on my morning routine’”. She makes an important point, we are brainwashed to believe that everything we do in life must be in an attempt to get to the next step, but spoiler alert, when you get to that next step, there is always another step. The dream we are sold, will never be achieved.

Across my three years at university my relationship towards academic productivity and pressure has changed considerably in comparison to the rather toxic mindset I had whilst at school. I went to an all-girls grammar school which was highly academic, and grades were a big deal. The jump from GCSE to A Level was huge, and from the moment I began Year 12, it was drilled into us the importance of these exams, if we did not bag those A’s we wouldn’t get into university, and life would be over.

This may sound incredibly dramatic, but I’m sure around 99 percent of students will agree that A Levels were the most stressful times of our lives, they certainly were for me. I have always been a conscientious student, yet it reached a point that however much work I did, it never felt like enough, and on reflection, I can say that in Year 13 especially I was miserable. The intense academic pressure and constant focus on the dreaded exam sucked out any enjoyment from studying the brilliant Tennessee Williams, and I could not wait for it all to end.

We were fed the narrative that A Levels were the be all and end all – they were the gateway to the next stage of life, and without them we were nothing. I was also the first cohort to sit the “new” A Levels, therefore not only did the students not know what to expect, the teachers didn’t either – adding a whole new level of stress. In my mock exams in March, I got a B in Maths and my teacher reported this to be “slightly disappointing”. The implication was that if you weren’t achieving the highest grade possible from the get-go, you were failing.

Even my Spanish teacher referred to us all as “little-sausages being pumped out of a factory”, and this was honestly how I felt. During the run up to exams, and in the exam period itself, academic pressure consumed me. I stopped seeing friends outside of school, I quit my piano lessons, volunteering, part-time job and only forced myself to exercise to stop myself from going insane. I was physically and mentally exhausted, and awakening on a school day, my first thought was “how long until I can just go back to bed.” I had huge guilt and angst about taking time off from studying, and I can see now that I was well and truly trapped in the toxic productivity echochamber.

It is important to differentiate between productivity and toxic productivity. Productivity is good, it helps us succeed financially, in our careers, and in both our relationships with others and ourselves, yet when productivity takes over your life it has become toxic and will have problematic effects. Expert nurse, Emma Selby, defines toxic productivity as “an obsession with radical self improvement above all else. Ultimately, it’s an unachievable goal; no matter how productive you are, the result you are left with is a feeling of guilt for not having done ‘more’.” Toxic productivity can damage your relationships with others, and your overall wellbeing and this can manifest itself in multiple ways. For me, my mood was low, I was exhausted, and I developed eczema across my fingers and hands.

My mum is a secondary school teacher, and during my A Level years she saw education through a completely different lens, developing a new sense of empathy for her students. Perhaps teachers do not always realise the effects academic pressure can have, and whilst certain students may need this pressure in order to work hard and thrive, I certainly did not. Eventually I started taking days off school, I just couldn’t work in such a high-pressured environment, surrounded by other students who were also stressed up to their eyeballs – how is this healthy? I think I was on the verge of ‘burnout’, and without the support of my parents and friends, I think it could have been a lot worse.

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger recognised “burnout” as a psychological diagnosis in 1974, applying it to cases of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Although related to exhaustion, burnout differs, as whilst exhaustion causes one to stop once they can’t go any further, burnout means you reach that point but force yourself to keep going. Anne Helen Petersen publicised the idea of ‘millennial burnout’ in her article “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation”. Forcing herself to reflect on her recent struggles, she asks herself “Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly— since I was young.” Similar to the trajectory I was fed at school, Petersen reinforces the idea that students are convinced that their grades and first job will determine both their career, “but also their intrinsic value for the rest of their lives.”

Millennials also have it tough, as Petersen states “We couldn’t just show up with a diploma and expect to get and keep a job that would allow us to retire at 55. In a marked shift from the generations before, millennials needed to optimize ourselves to be the very best workers possible.” This idea of optimization, and never being “off the clock” has trickled down into Gen Z and we are struggling to achieve a healthy work-life balance.

In an interview for The Times, social media influencer, Grace Beverley, also known as GraceFit, discusses "burnout", stating that Gen-Zedders need to “question the culture that demands they work 24/7 and monetise everything they do — and take a break. Or they risk burning out.” At just 24 years old, Beverley is the chief executive of her fitness app Shreddy, and sustainable activewear brand, Tala. In April, her new book, Working Hard, Hardly Working: How to Achieve More, Stress Less and Feel Fulfilled, hit the shelves, and has since become a Number One Sunday Times Bestseller. Despite often being referred to as the “snowflake generation,” in her book, Beverley acknowledges how Gen Z are the generation more obsessed with productivity than any other: “Our generation has internalised the idea that we should be working all the time...It’s very much looked down onto say, ‘Well, I do my job and then I leave for the night and forget about it.’ There’s this idea that people who work a 40-hour week are lazy.”

Beverley comments on the narrative that we must always be doing more. Being a university student, we are constantly told that leaving university with “just a degree” is “no longer enough.” We must get involved in sports, societies, volunteering, all to become more employable. Getting involved in these activities is a great thing, however, what can be problematic is the reasoning behind why we do them. They are no longer just “extra-curricular” activities, they enhance our brand, they can be detailed on a CV and increase employability. But when everything contributes to enhancing your brand, it can be difficult to know when to stop pushing yourself to the next level. Beverley concludes: “I’m definitely not saying, ‘Fight against this, don’t work after 5pm!’  You should be able to lean in and work really hard to get to where you want to get to, but at the same time we all need to know when to step back. Right now, no one feels rested, no one feels comfortable, no one can do their work properly and we all end up being far less productive.”

Revising for my Maths A Level exam, I broke down in tears when I couldn’t get the answer right, I then cried more because I wanted to take a break, but I couldn’t as I didn’t think that would be productive. I knew that a break wouldn’t feel like a break as I’d just feel guilty. In the end I cried myself to sleep instead. It wasn’t a healthy mindset, I was burnt out, I wouldn’t allow myself to take a break, but that resulted in me being even less productive.

Unlike our parents, Gen-Z have online culture to contend with, and with so many of us living our lives online, it can be easy to forget that social media presents a constructed image of perfection. During lockdown, when all we had was our online lives, it became increasingly hard to not be sucked into this false toxic world. Social media breeds comparison and when everyone looks like they are smashing the gym, studying for hours, or only eating smashed avo on toast – it’s clear to see how social media can contribute massively to toxic productivity.

The rise of social media has also birthed the rise of the StudyTuber – normal, extra-ordinary students who use their YouTube platform to detail their education – providing revision tips, vlogging exam weeks, or uploading their ten top tips to achieve all A*’s at GCSE. Gen Z have grown up among this world of StudyTube, and whilst they have created a helpful platform for students experiencing the stresses of the UK education system, they can also be harmful and encourage toxic productivity.

The majority of StudyTubers are incredibly high achieving, we are talking three A*’s at A Level and studying at the top Russell group universities: Oxford, Durham or Exeter to name a few. Whilst their content has a place, it isn’t always the most relatable, and what is clear is the extent to which their identity is intrinsically linked to their academic performance. Through YouTube they have commoditised their academic selves, and for many this has resulted in brand deals, meet and greets with their viewers, and even paid book deals.

Yet this can also have unhealthy effects, as without their academic brand, who are they? In her YouTube video titled “Live Reaction to my First ESSAY MARK at UNIVERSITY (I cried...)”, Exeter student Ruby Granger reacts to her first university essay mark. Granger, who currently has 606,000 subscribers, breaks down in tears after receiving a mid to high 2:2. Through tears she states, “you know when it just feels like a complete waste of time...at least you know not to take chances in future.” Feeling disappointed with a grade is completely valid, and we all have different expectations of ourselves, but this is Granger’s first essay – I think she needs to cut herself a bit of slack.

Granger’s emotional reaction isn’t necessarily her fault, as the education system teaches us that it is not ok to fail. Towards the end of the video, Granger inserts a clip from two days later when she reflects upon the mark. She acknowledges that despite her immediate emotional reaction, she now realises that getting a bad grade “isn’t the end of the world.” She continues “it is so easy for us to think ‘well this is it this is the be all and end all’  and ‘if I do badly on this then I’m never going to be successful’, [but] that is such a bad way of looking at it as nothing is impossible, nothing closes something off entirely...this one mark doesn’t define you.”

My maths teacher viewed my B as “slightly disappointing” because I had failed to get an A, I had failed to be the best and that wasn’t ok. What if we changed the narrative to a focus on positive progression – “Well done for getting a B, next step is to progress to an A, and here’s how you can improve”. Student’s efforts need to be acknowledged, instead of constantly striving to be better it is so important to recognise achievement, take a step back and relax. As Beverley says, this isn’t about discouraging hard work, it is about balance, something so many burnt out students are lacking. We are battling a mental health crisis and the pressure that Gen Z feel through academics seems to be a sure factor – we need to stop telling students that their best isn’t good enough.

17-year-old me genuinely believed that if I didn’t get that A*AA, I wouldn’t get into university and my life would end. But guess what, my worst fears came true, and I survived. Results day was a rollercoaster – I logged into UCAS to see the dreaded words “YOU ARE IN CLEARING”. I had worked myself to the bone, blood, sweat and many many tears had gone into my A Levels, and it wasn’t enough. I had failed.

These were the thoughts spiralling through my head that morning, fast-forward to the evening and after an incredibly welcoming call with Helen, the Head of English ,I had accepted a place at York. Cheesy as it sounds, I think that conversation with Helen will stay with me forever –she congratulated me, she made me feel like I had achieved, not failed, I was good enough.

Fast-track three years later and I can hand on heart say that missing my grades and going through Clearing was the best thing that ever happened to me. Last week, my friend said to me “Kirsten you have a really great work ethic, you manage to stay so level-headed, and whilst most people get stressed when they hit a wall, you stay calm and work through it.” On reflection, I honestly think that I am only able to work like this now, because of my experiences at A Level. I was so unbelievably stressed, I lost a lot of myself, yet in the end the thing I feared the most happened and I was ok.

I realise now that no one should feel that much academic pressure, it’s unhealthy, nothing is worth getting that stressed over. Work hard on that dissertation, study for that exam, but don’t literally give it your all. Productivity is a tool, not a lifestyle, and when it takes over your life it is toxic and damaging. I guess I broke out of the toxic productivity echochamber, and you can too.

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