A cartoon of a stressed out person
Illustration: Sierra Bellmore

If work and school and no sleep are normal, where do you draw the limit?

In Business & Technology, Features /

By Justin Chandler

The time is 11 p.m. It’s Halloween and I’m still at The Eyeopener newsroom. I’ve spent the whole day editing a radio feature: the first thing on my novel-length to-do list. Next, I’ll finish designing and editing pages for the issue I’m co-managing.

I head to the washroom and, with my forehead pressed against the wall above the urinal, think about the week ahead. It doesn’t look promising. Late nights turn into early mornings and 15-hour days accompany little sleep. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a day to rest on the weekend before I resume the chaotic cycle.

By the time I stumble out of the newsroom, it’s nearly midnight. I’ve got an hour’s commute home and an 8 a.m. class the next day, which means another night with little sleep. When the northbound subway gets to Bloor Station, I marvel as an eight-foot-tall inflatable dinosaur squeezes on board. Presumably there’s a human inside. Then I remember that it’s Halloween.

“Why does this person get to have fun in an inflatable costume tonight while I’m working late and putting my head in suspect places?” I ask myself. “Am I doing something wrong?”

“It becomes a matter of pride to subject yourself to this rigid discipline imposed on you by the market”

Months later, while listening to the CBC radio show Ideas, I heard something that answered my question. During a February episode, sociology professor Wolfgang Streeck described coping, “an attitude or an activity whereby people who lack traditional support—either from families or from social services—work very hard to cope with increasing pressures on their everyday life.”

According to Streeck, who is also emeritus director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany, one can observe this attitude in studies of family life in the United States and Europe. He says people who live exhausting lives that are regulated in order to compete in the labour market can become proud of their ability to exhaust themselves.

“So that they say, ‘We are coping, we’re good,’ and others are less good or bad at coping. So it becomes a matter of pride to subject yourself to this rigid discipline imposed on you by the market,” Streeck said.

I’m certainly not the busiest person I know and it’s important to note that, unlike the people Streeck referred to, the work I’m doing isn’t all necessary for me to survive: my parents help pay for my education and I live rent-free at home. But I do feel that sense of pride Streeck refers to regarding my work habits. Rather than complain, I’ll often catch myself bragging to the people near me about how much I have to do in hopes that someone will sympathize, or toss out a measly compliment. But that rarely happens.

My peers “busy brag” too. Who slept the least? Who worked the hardest? We talk about our unhealthy habits like it’s something to be proud of when in reality, it would probably be better for everyone if we slept more.

We talk about our unhealthy habits like it’s something to be proud of when in reality, it would probably be better for everyone if we slept more.

There are places where people value R&R (rest and recuperation) much more than we do in North American culture. According to the National Sleep Foundation, workers in Spain, Italy and China get time off from their jobs for afternoon naps. And in Övertorneå, Sweden, a local politician has proposed implementing a paid, weekly hour-long break for workers to have sex. Swedish workers already get time off to exercise each week and in many offices, an hour-long break for coffee and cake is mandatory.

Meanwhile in Canada, a 2011 Heart and Stroke Foundation survey found that 44 per cent of respondents said they had no time for regular physical activity because of work. Another 41 per cent said healthy meals take too long to prepare. Finding time to exercise and eat well is critical because failing to do so increases the risk of heart disease and strokes, which kill one-third of Canadians annually.

Working over 50 hours a week, according to some experts, can actually be counterproductive. Other data strongly suggests that risking one’s health to work more doesn’t even pay off. Despite the workloads many Canadians take on to support themselves, the country, as a whole, does not have a high productivity rate compared to other countries, like Ireland and Spain.

Finding time to exercise and eat well is critical because failing to do so increases the risk of heart disease and strokes, which kill one-third of Canadians annually.

Shayan Yazdanpanah is the special projects lead for the Ryerson Students’ Union and a mental health advocate. He works with students in leadership roles and said he sees often workloads translate into bragging rights.

“I think it’s almost become a norm now for students to do this,” Yazdanpanah said.

Instead of bragging about how they sacrifice their physical and mental health for the things they do in school, Yazdanpanah said it’d be better if students discussed the ways they took care of themselves.

There’s a “huge stigma” around taking the time to self-care, he said, adding that people often look down on peers who take naps or rests, and view them as lazy. Yazdanpanah said he has tried to rid himself of that attitude. He sleeps as much as he can and spends more time talking to his friends and playing with his dog, which he finds therapeutic.

“The days you don’t feel like you can make time for it are they days you need it the most,” he said.

When it comes to taking time off from working, people self-stigmatize, telling themselves they should be finishing homework or replying to emails instead. But “the work never ends,” Yazdanpanah said. “Work is important, but your health is more important than anything else.”

“The days you don’t feel like you can make time for [self care] are they days you need it the most”

As a student going into my graduating year, I’m not optimistic about the future. In a world where rent and housing prices continually increase as jobs in journalism disappear, it seems less and less likely that I’ll have the same chance at a stable career as my parents did when they were my age.

When I arrive home, my family is asleep. Even after working all day and coming back late, my mind races. It jumps from what I have to do tomorrow, to what I did today, to what I need to do in a week, a month, a year. Am I doing the right things? Am I working too much? Too little? I don’t know the answers and maybe I never will. But I’m tired, so I do what the voice in my guided meditation app tells me: I let my stress and worry dissipate and focus on my breathing, softly and slowly until I fall asleep. Tomorrow is a new day.

HERE ARE THE STORIES FROM THE ISSUE

STUDENTS ARE BUCKLING UNDER UNAFFORDABLE RENT
RYE GRAD PAYS OFF MORTGAGE IN 4 YEARS
LIVING COSTS MORE NOW THAN IT DID IN THE ‘90S

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