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. 

Author: The Origin*

With great power comes great responsibility.

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