An RG-EJ Insight into Toxic Productivity

Written by: Ashley Lay (21-O1), Emily Tan (EJC), Ko Wen Ning (21-O4), Liew Yi Xuan (21-E1), Ranjana Venkatesan (RGS) 

Designed by: Elizabeth Khoo Yuk Min (21-U1)

“LOL I only got three hours of sleep last night”. As students in one of the most competitive societies around the world, we have likely heard something similar more than once. Some of us may even say these things ourselves. Though most of us do not realise it, this is a symptom of toxic productivity. 

Toxic productivity, as defined by Grazia, is “an obsession with radical self-improvement and is an unachievable goal which causes us to set high standards for ourselves. No matter how productive we might be, there is always a feeling of guilt for not having done more… For starters, there’s a constant feeling of not doing enough”. Now, with this in mind, are you part of this phenomenon? As Singapore remains ever-developing, toxic productivity only seems to grow, and this is particularly true in schools, leaving serious repercussions on students affected. 

This might cause one to wonder, what is the root cause of toxic productivity? Singapore’s ubiquitous narrative of meritocracy could be a part of the problem. One key lesson taught in Singaporean society is that success and hard work are not just inextricably linked, but that success is entirely dependent on hard work. The more work you put in, the more successful you are. Even structural barriers like socio-economic disadvantages are commonly seen as vincible as long as you put in the effort. Most Singaporeans have probably seen the advertisements depicting lower-class students getting straight As due to staying up all night to study. It has become ingrained in many of us that to guarantee success, or even to deserve success, we would have to put in the time, effort and work to attain it. As such, productivity in school is widely perceived as necessary to lead a happy adult life. 

Another reason could be the ‘Struggle Olympics’, a phenomenon in which everyone seeks to outdo each other in pain and suffering. This exists both among older generations and among classmates and friends. Adults sometimes say that school was harder back in their day in response to the stress that current students face, while students in our current generation tend to compare the amount of work or sleep they experience daily with others. Often, this creates pressure for students to meet unreasonably high expectations surrounding how much work they should be doing. But perhaps more insidiously, it normalises and glorifies a lot of unhealthy work habits and attitudes. For instance, somehow, the notion of depriving yourself of sleep to work is indicative of the strength of one’s character. 

An additional pressure that students face is that of their external environment. In the Singapore academic context, teachers can serve as stressors. Even though teachers’ remarks are meant to be well-meaning cautionary tales about the importance of studying consistently, these can inadvertently pressure students. If students are already behind on work and hear that other classes are doing far better or that the workload will continue to increase exponentially, they are likely to feel even more stressed. On a peer level, overwork tends to be normalised, with many joking about how little they have slept or the inordinate amount of practice papers they have completed. When this level is seen as the baseline rather than an achievement, it drives students to carry on overworking themselves and feel as though they are never good enough. However, students may not take issue with the current state of things as graduating with good grades is seen as the end goal of education; they therefore neglect important concerns such as their mental and physical health in favour of studying harder and achieving good results.

In order to find out more about toxic productivity in Raffles Girls’ and Eunoia Junior College, we decided to carry out focus-group discussions. From the results of our two focus-group discussions, we managed to uncover both the varying opinions of the students and their levels of understanding regarding toxic productivity. Most respondents were aware of the existence of toxic productivity, and acknowledged that working oneself to an extreme extent was toxic productivity, especially if their mental health and other aspects of life are affected. Only a few were aware that part of toxic productivity is a person putting others down for not doing as much work as the person themselves seems to be — essentially, having unrealistic expectations of the amount of work a person can complete, and imposing judgements on themselves and others because of those expectations. They also identified a key habit indicating toxic productivity as feeling excessively guilty for not completing work. When asked if they thought their own habits were toxic, the answers were mixed — some were actively aware of their detrimental habits, while others believed that they knew their own limits. However, many of the study habits they listed, such as staying up past midnight to complete work and skipping meals, did indicate toxic productivity.

When asked to differentiate between hard work and toxic productivity, some respondents stated that working hard is more about maximising time and resources to attain reasonable goals, while toxic productivity is similar to workaholism, where less of the actual goal is fulfilled due to the stress incurred in the process. Lastly, we asked our respondents if they believed habits indicating toxic productivity would detrimentally impact one in the long-term, and their answer was a resounding ‘yes’. They believed that toxic productivity could cause burnout or breakdowns, due to its physical and psychological impacts. They also believed it might blind one to their toxic habits, to the point that they do not realise they need to stop practising these habits in order to improve their health and actual rates of productivity. 

Toxic productivity is sure to leave some long-term implications as well, the most crucial being its psychological implications on students. Today’s competitive society has long observed increased stress levels amongst teenagers and students taking part in higher education. However, the new phenomenon of toxic productivity will only exacerbate the situation. In recent surveys, students have been reported to feel guilty for taking breaks in between studying, even though in multiple studies, breaks have been proven to be effective in refreshing and revitalising students while simultaneously allowing them to relieve themselves of some stress while studying. However, with toxic productivity, students instead feel disincentivised to take breaks, believing that time spent on resting is time wasted, which in the long run may result in various mental health issues such as anxiety. Increased stress levels have also been linked to insomnia, which leads to more tangible physical health issues that students will have to cope with. Such a scenario leads to a vicious cycle where students cannot focus on studying due to lack of rest, thus forcing themselves to spend more hours studying and put more pressure on themselves, leading to a toxic productivity cycle. Increased stress levels may also cause students to detach themselves from reality, often zoning out and feeling empty, which may further contribute to their need to carry on with the toxic productivity cycle and in some cases, develop depression. Furthermore, toxic productivity is only useful over a short period of time. As time progresses, students who function on toxic productivity often lose steam and motivation to work hard, giving up on their studies completely when they begin to question the meaning of their efforts. Therefore, toxic productivity in the long term will not only be stripped of its previous benefits but also slowly reveal its disastrous long term outcomes, leading to horrible consequences. 

In conclusion, the problem of toxic productivity amongst students has been aggravated by many factors in Singapore. From its widespread, institutionalised causes and the fact that it acts as a root cause to serious long term implications, the problem of toxic productivity is not only difficult to solve due to the many factors leading to its rise, but also the fact that it is entrenched in the way many students do work. In attempting to solve this issue, students themselves, teachers, and parents are required to be fully engaged, and students especially have to pay attention to their own mental wellbeing constantly. As such, though this problem is exceptionally difficult to solve, with the collaboration of various stakeholders in students’ lives, it is not entirely impossible to solve it. 

Kaleidoscope: slices of life – home

Written by: Katelyn Joshy (21-U1)

Designed by: Lay Kai En, Ashley (21-O1)

‘Please report to the nearest San Francisco police department to verify your citizenship status.’ My eyes halted at the last line; it was at that moment I realised that the jig was up, no more running from the truth. No more- My life was about to change forever, and there was no turning back. 

For as long as I can remember, America has been my home. I was raised here in San Francisco and had the typical American childhood: sleepovers, trick-o-treating- you name it. I grew up singing the national anthem. I recall proudly reciting the pledge of allegiance every day in school with a hand over my heart. There was never a shred of doubt in my mind that I belonged here until this came along: A letter from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. It mandates my family show proof of our documentation. It quickly reminded me of my real place in society- an undocumented immigrant nobody and suddenly home was not home after all. My parents came from Pakistan, at the time a war-torn nation. The instability and political strife were what drove my parents to make the bold move of escaping with little me, just a few weeks olds and swaddled in a washcloth in the dead of night. I don’t know what happened that fateful night; my parents never spoke of it- like a horrible truth they wish to suppress. All I know was that we could have died that day, and it is a miracle I’m even here. We’ve been hiding from the authorities for all these years- registered under fake names and addresses to avoid detection. All this while, I thought we were in the clear- ‘Life is going to be normal,’ I said. Yet, with this letter in my hand- it seems we are finally on their radar.

“Maawa? What happened, child?” the sound of my mother’s voice echoed from behind me. My hand shot to my eyes, drying them off the tears that came streaking down my face. “Nothing, Ammi,” I said, shoving the letter behind my back. My mother insisted on seeing the letter, and soon panic set in as she glanced through the letter’s contents. “I will tell your Abba.” She said, trying to sound strong as she strode off to find my father. A plethora of thoughts plagued my mind; ‘What proof are we going to show when we have none?’, ‘What is going to become of us?’ and ‘What if we get deported?….’ are just some to name a few. Yet, the most important question remaining was; ‘What now?’, of that I had no clue of where to start. The decision laid in the hands of my father, who for years had furiously protected us and kept our family safe from any discovery. ‘Abba will know what to do.’ I reassured myself and waited with bated breath for his decision to be made known. 

That night, after dinner, my father called for a family meeting. “As you probably know, this morning we received a letter from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement… They are ordering us to show proof of our documentation as legal immigrants here within a week of notice… I know this is a shock for you as it is for me…” pausing, he tried collecting his thoughts; “The truth is, I don’t have a solution. We can’t deny they sent the letter to the wrong address, not when they’ve sent it to this address… All that’s left is to leave this place because it’s not safe here anymore… I know someone that can house us in the neighbouring city till we get this situation sorted out. For now, pack your bags. We leave tomorrow morning.” Those words caught me off guard, leaving me dumbfounded- ‘Abba doesn’t have a solution?’ Suddenly, my world turned upside down, and the future was uncertain. That night the house stirred with activity as everyone scrambled to pack their whole lives into a tiny suitcase. The stripped bare beds, fallen over the bookcase, and half-emptied cabinets gave the impression we left in a hurry- but we weren’t interested in impressions. All that mattered was we got to our new hideout safely.

The next thing I knew, we were packed off into a black jeep sent for us and drove miles away from San Francisco. We crossed highways, interstate lines, and borders- putting a distance between our old lives and edging closer towards our new ones. It took us days to get there, and of course, not without some close calls. At last, we finally made it. I peered out the window and caught my first glimpse of the small suburban neighbourhoods of Sacramento. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city were colonies of modest family homes lined up in neat rows. The jeep halted before a quaint red-bricked home that stood steadily at the end of the street. Its porch had all the perfect elements, complete with a porch couch and swing. It was made of limestone rock and cream walls, giving a sense of calm to the abode. A lush green garden bounded by a white picket fence grew out front, giving the home a sense of vitality. Just as I was taking in the splendour around me, a man came rushing out the front door: “Come my dear Anwar and family! We have been anxiously waiting for you!” ‘This must be the person Abba was talking about hosting us yesterday.’ I pondered to myself as I watched him help my mother with the baggage in the trunk- eyeing him suspiciously the whole time. ‘Why would anyone want to help a couple of strangers?’ was the first thought that came to mind. However, all those questions disrupted once I heard his backstory; His name was Hussain, and he happened to be a close friend of my father. Turns out, he was once an illegal immigrant himself till he managed to gain US citizenship years ago. Then, he settled down here in Sacramento with his wife, Mira. Suddenly, it all made sense, and I let my guard down.

Once inside, we were warmly welcomed by Aunty Mira. “Make yourself at home, dear”, cooed Aunty Mira as she led me to would-be my room. “I’ll fix you something to eat. Are you hungry?” she asked. I shook my head, shy of asking favours from a stranger. “Are you sure? You must be ravenous after that long journey. Come, tell me, what would you like to eat?” she insisted. “That’s alright Aunty, I’ve just eaten. Thank you for asking me.” I said. She gave me a warm smile: “Let me know if you need anything at all, dear.”, and she left me alone to unpack my things. As soon as she had gone, I shut the door and threw myself onto the bed. ‘Hello new life, goodbye old.’ I thought to myself woefully. Time went on, and we ended up living with them for several months before father could find us a stable home just a mile away from Uncle Hussain’s home. “It’s a single-story house; 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and half furnished!” father announced as we tucked into dinner that chilly September night. “I’ve made the down payment already. We can move in next Thursday,” he said, beaming. Those words were met with much joy by all at the dinner table. “Allahu Akbar!” cried Uncle Hussain. Lady Luck was looking upon us at last. ‘We’re finally getting our lives together, and everything will be just as it was.’, I thought to myself with a grin. 

In the blink of an eye, Thursday rolled around, and it was the day of the big move. “Call us anytime you need something, buddy. We’ll always be here.” Uncle Hussain choked back tears as he held father in an embrace. Soon, the trunk was filled, and the car doors slammed shut. “Have a safe journey!” they said before our vehicle zoomed off, turning the couple and their lovely home into tiny specks in the distance. As I gazed out the window, my thoughts drifted to our new home, and for the first time in a long time, I let out a sigh of relief. Yet, little did my family know that we were far from safety…

As soon as we arrived at our new home, we were ambushed by a group of officers. It was a trap! We were never safe! They’d been watching our every move, baiting us with the home to catch us in the open. I still remember that moment of anguish when the officers pinned my father to the ground and cuffed him. The sound of my mother’s hysteric voice still rings in my ear whenever I recall that moment. They shoved us into the back of a squad car and drove us to the immigration and customs headquarters. Now, deportation was a very real reality for us as the court order was being processed. “The court declares you must leave this country by 11:00 P.M. tomorrow night.”, said our caseworker. I was gutted, blinking away angry tears. I yelled: “THIS ISN’T FAIR, AMERICA IS MY HOME! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO US!”. Yet, she said nothing, just gave us a rueful smile and walked away. My parents tried to console me, but it was futile. “It’s alright, Mawaa. Everything will be fine.”, said my mother as she placed an arm around my shoulder, squeezing it tight. “No.. no, it won’t..” I replied through my sobs. “Aren’t you devastated?” I asked, looking up. “We have to leave our home..Why aren’t you sad?” I said as my eyes searched theirs for any sign of despondency. “No, we aren’t, Mawaa. That’s because we have you,” they replied calmly. “I.. don’t understand,” I said, looking quizzically at them. With a sigh, they said: “Mawaa, you are our home. When we left Pakistan, you were all we brought along- the only memory of our former lives. That’s why we named you Mawaa- meaning home in Arabic. So, no matter where we are, as long as you are with us, we will always be home.”

Definition of culture specific terms used:

Ammi- the Urdu word for mother

Abba- the Urdu word for father 

Allahu Akbar-  phrase meaning ‘God is most great’, used by Muslims in prayers and as a general declaration of faith or thanksgiving.