Toxic productivity, as Huffpost defines it, is the “unhealthy desire to be productive at all times, at all costs”. It is not hard to understand why this phenomenon is so prevalent among university students. Students are expected to push
themselves to their limits to succeed, even if that means sacrificing their mental and physical health in the process.

According to the Amherst Wire, university students are forced to go above and beyond in order to remain competitive in the job market. This means that students are expected to partake in internships, full- or part-time jobs, and student societies, all while maintaining high grades for all of their classes.

The University of Pretoria’s Student Health Services (SHS) and Student Counselling Unit (SCU) also expressed that toxic productivity is encouraged among students through “pressure to achieve high marks, competitive programmes, [and] pressure to complete quickly no matter their own possible individual obstacles”. They believe that this phenomenon stems from students’ inability “to realistically estimate their own reasonable levels of achievement”. Students will put more pressure onto themselves and they “could end up feeling like failures when the problem is not their own outcomes but rather their expectations”. Psychologist and blogger, Dr Julie Smith, explains that toxic productivity enforces a feeling that no matter how much you do each day, it is never enough. This means that students are drastically overextending themselves, while simultaneously never feeling fulfilled or accomplished.

As one student expressed on PDBY’s poll, “[w]e need to stop comparing our progress to others’. That’s where it becomes toxic.”

Dr Smith believes that there is a wider cultural problem at play. Social media has created an environment where people have a constant view into one another’s lives. This has created pressure to “appear a certain way to family, friends or potential employers”. TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are filled with an endless amount of ultra-productive day-in-the-life videos, accounts dedicated to beautiful note-taking, pictures of fellow students studying in coffee shops, and, tragically, the #hustle.

This has led to a culture where hyper-productivity has been romanticised and normalised on social media. The UP SHS and the UP SCU stated that “[s]tudents may publish achievements on social media which do not reflect the real world. Images are displaced from the real-life context of ongoing challenges and disappointments which accompany ordinary life experiences amid the achievements”. This culture of “performative workaholism”, as the New York Times calls it, makes people feel inferior if they are not able to maintain the same levels of hyper- productivity they see portrayed on social media. Social media also exposes people to an onslaught of advertisements that force people to compare themselves to others and their levels of productivity, in order to encourage them to buy their products. PDBY conducted a poll on social media and asked students about their feelings regarding toxic productivity. When asked if social media has ever made them feel as though they were not being productive enough, the vast majority of students who responded replied that it did.

The constant push for hyper-productivity is not sustainable or healthy. However, in order to keep up with the high levels of productivity that this culture requires, many students are forced to turn towards unhealthy habits. In PDBY’s poll, 73% of 1260 students who replied said that they drank caffeine while studying, 59% of students said that they sleep less than 6 hours multiple times a week and 79% of students said that they practise unhealthy eating habits while studying. Students also revealed that they suffer from panic attacks and insomnia, partake in smoking, neglect personal hygiene, and use concerta or similar substances without a prescription, or double their usual
dosage. One student also shared that they “[went] to class with a kidney stone”, because they prioritised their academics over their health.

An overwhelming majority of responding students also expressed that their sense of self-worth was dependent on their ability to be productive. They expressed that if they think that they are not being productive enough they experience feelings of guilt, stress, and anxiety and can feel like they are “useless”. The SHS and the SCU explained that, in the long term, hyper-productivity can “bring about low self-esteem and a sense of hopelessness”.

The constant pressure that students put on themselves to participate in endless activities, while also maintaining high grades, is not sustainable. Even though this behaviour is expected from all students, it is not good for the mental or physical health of students, and it can leave them with a sense of hopelessness. As one student expressed on PDBY’s poll, “[w]e need to stop comparing our progress to others’. That’s where it becomes toxic.”

Image: Bernhard Schiele

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I’m Kirsten, a law student who loves writing, making spreadsheets and consuming an unhealthy amount of caffeine.
I love writing about student issues and current events.