The Pressure of Being Productive During a Pandemic

The situation under Covid-19 has forced us to create a new normal by hustling harder than ever. 

We are often made to listen to examples of Isaac Newton who discovered gravity and invented calculus while he was in quarantine or of the person next door who began their new online venture. Although it’s pretty common  to hear of such things in our day and age, considering our generation has mastered the art of digitisation, technology, scientific evolution and the notion of modern discourse. But our generation is also stuck under enormous pressure from older generations, who believe that the youth today should be more productive than ever or else they are made to feel guilty. We agree that the pressure to start a creative project, seek new work, organise our room, learn a new language or write a book is convincing, but also overwhelming.

“This time requires us to stay healthy, alive and calm, instead of just trying to pull ourselves into a puzzle of ‘constructed’ productivity that deteriorates our mental health.”

Although societal pressure of being productive is nothing new, during this pandemic, most of us are constantly fighting ‘productivity guilt’ while coming across countless social media posts about our friends’ new love of baking pizzas or brownies, new start-ups or motivational reminders from twitteratis.

But you need to pause. These comparisons are nothing but a capitalist construct: where to be productive, to be creative is the new slogan. We often fail to realise that no matter how important it is to hone skills and reach different horizons during this pandemic, it should not be prioritised over and above our mental well-being. This time requires us to stay healthy, alive and calm, instead of just trying to pull ourselves into a puzzle of ‘constructed’ productivity that deteriorates our mental health. We have now illogically equated staying at home with having idle time.

Our approach towards this pandemic is what has pressurised us towards acting productive. We ought to think that we “have to” do things in order to compete with the productivity levels of our friends and peers. This is problematic because we don’t “have to” do anything under peer pressure or societal burden. If we are willing to be productive, we should follow the “want to” approach in order to enjoy the outcome, be it baking our favourite banana bread or finishing an online course.

I have also constantly felt guilty. Just like others, I received emails urging me to use the presumed downtime to take  online courses on Coursera, or to take a business course to more effectively monetise my baking skills. Each day I would jot down my favourite baking recipes and run to the kitchen because I thought I “have to” compete with others, but what happened? 

“Glorifying this ‘hustle’ during the global pandemic is mentally disturbing for different segments of the society.”

I failed to set up my own venture whereas my peers were able to launch theirs. Each day I would open my Instagram newsfeed and would surprisingly come across another self-made chef, makeup artist or a blogger. This is when I started over thinking and it affected my mental peace. It seemed like every second that I didn’t put towards building a side business, or making money from a hobby or improving myself in some way, I was just wasting my life.

However, the dynamics of this societal pressure are broad, and they vary in terms of economic class and gender today. If we account for capitalistic notions, this productivity guilt is a part of a “hustle culture” that was created by humans in the pre-corona world. I don’t necessarily blame the people promoting hustle culture, but glorifying this ‘hustle’ during the global pandemic is mentally disturbing for different segments of the society. 

Nowhere have I suggested that one should fall into the domain of lethargy and inactiveness. However, as the world is experiencing a severe pandemic and global health is deteriorating, the undue pressure to be productive at this point could end up leading to negative psychological effects on the global population, including anger, post-traumatic stress and DSM-5 symptoms like anxiety disorders and depression.

While most of the people are still forced to work from home in order to earn income for their households, they miss going to work physically because it was a stress-relief. For instance, women who were working at salons and daycare centres are now facing higher stress levels due to the likely increase in severity of domestic violence at home. If I turn to our youth, most of them went to schools, universities and work to feel socially connected to peers who could make them escape the trauma of abusive households. Now we are all laid-off. Even if we have online classes going on, we have too much energy making us anxious – because we feel lonely and suffocated under the walls of our homes. Compared to someone who is successfully running a startup during quarantine, we might mistake an idle person as being ‘unproductive’. Whereas, we might not be aware of the fact that some of these people, especially women and youngsters, have skills but they are unable to use them effectively because the environment they are living in is mentally draining. 

We live in a socio-political climate where our self-worth is often reduced to our productivity. It is unjustified to pressurise your friends and peers to become more productive without knowing their side of the story. Glorifying the hustle is the result of capitalism. While these are practical advice to follow, these are classist attempts to perpetuate the unhealthy capitalist notion of improving one’s labour efficiency for future. 

So while the societal pressures reinforce the expectation that every free second is monetizable. Here is what we have to truly remind ourselves. Being more productive has become harder by the change in daily routines, or by having no way to escape abusive households or roommates. Many people have either no or inadequate access to resources during this time, facing severe financial crisis and are unable to invest their capital in activities that might be productive. Some people may also have no or poor internet connection. However, the constant baggage of overwhelming news related to others’ progress or the increase in corona virus cases can make them feel exhausted, exacerbating mental health conditions. For women, new and unexpected childcare pressures, the new reality to do household chores, prepare more meals at home than usual, or for children to take time out for family and work sideways; they all make it harder to get work done.The world’s fastest growing economy, China, has reported cases of isolation disorders. Humans have also released the stress hormone, cortisol, during this critical time. A lead researcher in this project, Dr Kavita Vedhara, Professor of Health Psychology in University of Nottingham (UK), explains: “We have worked in the area of stress and health for 30 years now, and one of the key things we’ve learnt is that when we experience stressful situations for protracted periods, such as during this pandemic, it can have real implications for our health and wellbeing.”

“Instead of letting others down or pushing them into ‘guilt traps’, we must actively be present to motivate those who are suffering from mental, physical or emotional illnesses, and try to be a source of support for them.”

While interviewing students from various universities and relating to my experience, I realised how mentally exhausting it has been for individuals to cope up with the struggle of remaining productive. One of the interviewees, who is doing her BS in Accounting from Institute of Business Administration (IBA), mentioned that she tried her best to make a to-do list in order to remain productive but she couldn’t win: “There are days where my mental health is in shambles; there is no outlet (friends/outdoor activities). Mood swings, anxiety, palpitations, hopelessness related to the future, not feeling worthy or enough, fear, expectations of self. All of it exists and still not having the strength to do anything. These thoughts hit at once and it gets very difficult to break the chain.”

We should remember that we, as humans, are more than the economic value we generate, and what is important during this pandemic is the ability to deal with everyday mental strains, instead of just feeling inadequate for not acquiring a new skill. We need to acknowledge that we are all living in an unusual era, where living in quarantine is the new normal. Instead of letting others down or pushing them into ‘guilt traps’, we must actively be present to motivate those who are suffering from mental, physical or emotional illnesses and try to be a source of support for them.

Ayesha is a Summer 2020 Intern at Media Matters for Democracy. She is currently studying Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, and is keen to major in Psychology & Media studies.

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