There are many days where I leave my dorm at 8 a.m. to return 12 hours later.
Though I spent those hours focusing on class and studying, with little breaks to eat, I almost always return feeling unproductive. Oftentimes, I look in my floor’s lounge and notice a flood of people deep in their studies, and I immediately feel the pressure to study again. This sensation raises the question: If I’m not studying all the time, am I actually able to compete with my peers?
I’m not the only person asking myself this question. In fact, Psychology Today has even given a name to this preoccupation with being constantly occupied: the culture of busyness.
For many in a college environment, the constant sense of pressure and stress is a familiar feeling. While the high-stakes environment seems to come with the territory of attending a prestigious university or working a strenuous job, it is without a doubt the unhealthy result of busy culture.
Busy culture is an informal term describing the pressure to continually develop one’s career. While it might feel like it will get easier after college, studies showing Americans work longer hours than people in Europe and Japan prove busy culture has a stronghold over the United States.
It’s possible labor laws here in the U.S play a part in the perpetual busyness of the average American. The U.S. doesn’t require employees to take vacation days – according to a study done by Project: Time Off, Americans left 658 million vacation days unused. Instead of vacationing, Americans are working.
Additionally, Americans only have, on average, 10 paid vacation days compared to the 20 plus days many European employees in countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany have.
Technology has also changed the way the average American works. Work is not confined to the office and can now easily be carried home via laptops and cellphones. Americans are connected internationally and can work around the clock. Social media can force businesses and individuals to stay “relevant,” which means posting often and having a substantial internet presence. People can feel forced to work because work is ever-present in their pocket, but also if they do not, it offers the opportunity for someone else to get ahead.
The largest driver of busy culture, however, is money. In the 1970s, John Maynard Keynes predicted that as the standard of living increased, Americans would have to work less. While the standard of living has increased since then, the growing wealth gap has made many Americans too poor to decrease their work hours.
According to the Survey of Consumer Finances conducted by the Federal Reserve System in 2016, upper-income families’ median net worth is over $810,800, which is over 75 times more than the median lower-income families’ net worth, which averages around $10,800.
In 2017, the top 1 percent owned 40 percent of the country’s wealth with the top 20 percent owning 90 percent of wealth in the United States. This means Americans simply have to work more and cannot afford to take time off. As result, busyness has become the new norm.
It’s not just a problem for people in the workforce either – as college students we would know. Ellen Mei is a resident assistant, a member of many clubs and constantly applying for internships, and said she’s felt the burden of busy culture.
“There isn’t a moment where I don’t feel the burden of work,” said the third-year linguistics and computer science student.
As UCLA students, we wear our hard work as a badge of honor – but it’s often to the detriment of our health. Some effects of busy culture come as a result of large amounts of stress, which can cause a range of symptoms from lack of sleep and headaches to more intense symptoms like anxiety, depression or excessive substance use.
For many, the stress comes from external forces. Mei said she constantly feels pressure to work because others are also working nonstop: applying to internships, developing relationships with professors, touring labs, studying and attending office hours to advance their career.
Some of the external forces are so pervasive that some students struggle with anxiety as a result, said Tina Li, a third-year biochemistry student.
For example, imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which a person feels inadequate even though there is evidence that supports they are excelling.
Anyone can experience imposter syndrome and it is often accompanied by the anxiety that the person will be discovered as a fraud.
“A lot of my stress comes from imposter syndrome and competitiveness of UCLA,” said Li. “I would get so stressed that I became anxious. I couldn’t do work during the day, so I would lose sleep at night studying.”
A large stressor for students is the lack of sleep and the college culture that perpetuates the lack of sleep as grit. Li said she finds this aspect of busy culture especially detrimental to her mental health.
In fact, sleep deprivation is so common among college students that in 2016, Huffington Post began Sleep Revolution College Tour, which aimed to discuss healthy sleeping habits and the benefit of sleep.
“There is no resiliency in pulling an all-nighter,” said Li. “For me, starting assignments early and regulating my sleep has kept my stress levels down.”
For me, both the internal and external forces resulted in enough stress to land me in the hospital – and that’s when I realized I needed to manage my stress better. Many students who feel the pressures of busy culture have had similar revelations that pushed them to find ways to deal with busy culture and the stress that comes with it.
Though almost everyone can relate to the effects of busy culture, we are also the ones perpetuating it. Busy culture is a part life and the stressors may never go away, but with a little research and experience, people can find a healthy way of managing stress that results in a healthier and happier life.