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Opinion: Combatting toxic academic culture — work to learn, not work to work

On mental health and the ‘internalized capitalism’ of university students
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TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY
TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY

In academia, it is not uncommon to boast about losing countless hours of sleep to studying, because for academics there is no such thing as free time, only time spent working. Free time is not for playing video games, watching YouTube, or reading a book; free time is meant for sending out résumés, writing papers, and studying for an exam a month in advance.

Overworking demonstrates a degree of dedication and diligence — it is what is promoted in our society. Not working immediately associates us with laziness, and being deemed nothing more than parasitic to our society. We are essentially romanticizing our toxic relationships with our jobs and education. However, while our society condemns toxic relationships with people, it should also condemn those we have with our education and work. 

The workaholic culture is furthermore supported by our society’s neoliberal values, such as the idea that it is entirely up to the individual to be successful. The institutions of our society have placed emphasis on the fact that our freedom is earned through our success and thus we place pressure on ourselves to outperform what we can handle. Due to things like competition and economic concerns, we do everything to be successful, even if it means overworking ourselves and putting aside our mental health. 

In fact, our society has begun to internalize capitalistic values and mindsets by equating our efficiency with how much we are worth, also known as ‘internalized capitalism.’ Thus begins the cycle of squeezing more work into our already packed schedules and putting aside time-off to build our résumés.

It has become a competition of who has had less sleep and who spends more time writing their paper. This culture has been founded on the foundations of exploiting students, resulting in them being overworked and underpaid, all stemming from capitalist ideals. This means that we need to make a move from institutional structures that promote self sabotage and stress to structures that support creativity, critical thinking, public interest-based research, and citizenship. 

We often aim to overload our résumé with experience, certificates, and degrees that hold little meaning to us and our self-growth. Shifting reasoning as to why an individual is putting themselves through their degree or a job is pivotal in shaping the way they work and the boundaries that are being set. There is a constant fear of being replaced by a more ‘efficient’ worker or student who doesn’t set boundaries for their mental health, and this culture is reinforced by those superior to us. 

Teaching assistants and professors in positions of privilege must become the voices of struggling students, to help make impactful changes to this system. In order to build a better academic culture, it means breaking cycles such as working more hours than one is being paid for and assigning too many assignments. These cycles have done little to no good, as students are simply overworking themselves to the point of failure

It is impossible to not only maintain one’s academics to a high degree but also work and do extracurriculars — all of this will only lead to student burnout. Setting boundaries from the beginning is central to begin solving this issue and to build a culture surrounding self-growth for the already precarious student workers and incoming ones, but we must also create a culture where these boundaries are respected.

While there is indefinitely nothing more admirable than students who study hard and work hard to achieve their goals, there must be a line drawn to prevent them from harming themselves mentally and physically. A culture built on the foundations of stress, is perhaps a culture that needs to be reconstructed. In order to combat the ongoing mental health crisis at the University of Toronto, the culture of overworking must be examined and dismantled. 

Do not work to work. Instead, work to learn, work to grow, and work passionately. 

Jasmin Akbari is a first-year social sciences student at Woodsworth College.