Go to class. Do homework. Repeat. This is the perpetual routine many Penn State students find themselves trapped in each semester — eliminating the potential for social interaction, leisure activity and, for some, a healthy mental state.
In the midst of the seventh week of classes for the fall semester, the prevalence of “toxic productivity'' has raised concerns among members of the student body.
Student Jaden Condiles said the phenomenon is not an uncommon one in University Park.
“People tend to overwork themselves, stress themselves out, but that’s just how it is,” Condiles (sophomore-biobehavioral health) said. “You can’t help it when you have all these assignments piling up.”
Toxic productivity, also known as “workaholism,” refers to a work ethic or work environment in which an individual or group is encouraged to undertake more than they can handle — leading to physical or mental health repercussions.
According to Psychology Today, “those who never stop working tend to work less efficiently and struggle to maintain focus.” Said individuals are also at “a significantly higher risk of depression and anxiety,” as many tend to feel guilty for not completing more tasks, even after some are complete.
Clinical psychologist Barbara Killinger described toxic productivity as “a soul-destroying addiction that changes people’s personalities and the values they live by.”
Even though students are only in the seventh week of classes, student Luke Smith said he has seen the effects of toxic productivity on his peers.
“It’s a real thing in college,” Smith (freshman-political science) said. “A lot of people crash and burn from the fact that they overextend themselves.”
The culprit, Smith said, is overcommitment to classes and the achievement culture Penn State fosters.
“People hold on to classes just out of pressure — classes that they should drop that they’re not equipped for just because they feel like they should be [taking them],” Smith said. “I think people bite off more than they can chew.”
Students “need to pace themselves better,” Smith said, and “consider the big picture of having to do this for four years.” Maintaining his mental health is personally more important to Smith than expected productivity levels, he said.
“A lot of students have to realize that it's not just an effort for this semester,” Smith said.
Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said students can reference the syllabi for each course to discern the amount of work necessary.
Counseling and Psychological Services, Powers said, is a resource students “can tap into” should they feel “taxed” from their workload.
For student Tristan Farnell, Penn State’s achievement culture is a direct facet of its tuition rates, he said.
“With how the costs are added up, you are incentivized to take a certain amount of classes, and you feel forced to skip certain classes and take the advanced forms you might not be ready for just to save money,” Farnell (freshman-computer science) said. “It really incentivizes you to push yourself, whereas that might not be the best idea for you mentally if you want to get the best success out of your college career.”
The university raised its tuition rates for the 2021-22 academic year July 15, increasing in-state tuition by 2.5% and out-of-state tuition by 2.75% — about $224 and $481 more, respectively. Several students spoke out about the increase, though no actions from the university resulted.
According to Powers, Penn State offers several resources for students struggling to pay tuition through its Office of Student Aid. The federal government can also provide support to students, Powers said.
Grades are often the greater focus for students than their mental health, Farnell said.
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Student Emily McCarty said she believes Penn State’s achievement culture is based not only in its tuition rates but also in its reputation as a state university.
Powers said “Penn State is a world-class research university to which tens of thousands of students apply each year.”
But with in-state students paying between approximately $33,056 and $36,278 per year and out-of-state students paying between $50,634 and $53,856 per year, McCarty (senior-hospitality management) said expectations are high for students who don’t want to “waste” their money.
“You definitely have a name to live up to when you come here,” McCarty said. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a big workload or anything. You’re expected to do it.”
McCarty also said she believes professors should limit the amount of assignments given to each student and consider the number of classes each student is taking.
Currently, the university does not regulate the amount or type of work given in courses, according to Powers.
However, the University Faculty Senate, in policy 40-23, requires a minimum of 45 hours of “work planned and arranged by the university faculty” per credit hour in a course, which the policy said could total more based on the subject matter. Laboratory courses with “sufficient additional outside preparation” require a minimum of 25-45 hours, according to the policy.
For students experiencing issues with instructors, attempted communication with the instructor in question is the first step to address academic concerns, according to Powers. If problems persist, students can reach out to the department head, school director or the director of academic affairs most closely affiliated with the department and the course, according to Penn State Keep Learning.
An academic concern form from Keep Learning and the Penn State Hotline — 1-800-560-1637 — are also paths students can take to have their concerns addressed, Powers said.
Despite Penn State’s established avenues for addressing concerns, student Erin Hanlon said she believes “there’s nothing the university can really do about” her stress and “overwhelmed” state.
Hanlon (freshman-forensic science and premedicine) did, however, acknowledge the presence of the university’s multitude of resources for students struggling with mental health or academic issues — resources that Deanna Lasorda said she believes students should be taking advantage of.
“I think there’s great resources at Penn State, and it just depends on the individual if [they] want to take advantage of [them] or not,” Lasorda (freshman-premedicine) said.
A few of the mental health resources available to students at Penn State, according to Powers, include Counseling and Psychological Services, WellTrack, CAPS Life Hacks, CAPS Chat, CAPS drop-in groups, the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness, the Collegiate Recovery Community and free wellness sessions.
Students can also text “LIONS” to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line or call 877-229-6400 to reach the Penn State Crisis Line, according to Powers.
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Condiles said she was able to effectively communicate with her professors when she fell ill earlier in the semester — and her professors, she said, were understanding of her situation.
“I’ve had some really good experiences the past week,” Condiles said. “When I was sick, teachers offered me makeup exams, extensions. Some [professors] are very accommodating.”
Smith said he had beneficial experiences speaking with academic advisors, who he said were able to put him on the right track for his freshman year.
Some students like Tyrell Hudson said Penn State has a positive environment without toxic levels of productivity.
“We have a pretty good level of productivity,” Hudson (junior-communications) said. “The classes push us pretty well.”
Will DiBonaventura said he believes the concept of toxic productivity doesn’t even exist — that one cannot be overly productive.
“Productivity, in any sense, can only be a good thing because it will teach you a lot more about yourself,” DiBonaventura (freshman-communications) said. “Any level of productivity, despite it being unhealthy at times, is ultimately for a better end goal — it’s to create a better future for yourself.”
DiBonaventura said he believes the “very essence” of going to college is “to get work done and advance yourself,” even if doing so has a “negative impact on your mental health at times.” He said a benefit of this mindset is that he believes it allows him to learn his limits.
McCarty, however, said she believes the opposite and that addressing mental health concerns must happen before productivity can occur in the first place. She said students must first “learn to deal with the stress.”
For Condiles, the solution boils down to time management, she said, and exact solutions will vary with each student and the classes they’re taking.
Hudson shared a similar sentiment and said keeping a planner is most helpful for him.
“Being organized helps you be more productive,” Hudson said — a sentiment student Daniel Fetterman agreed with.
Fetterman (junior-computer science) said splitting projects or assignments into smaller, more manageable chunks is the best solution to managing stress.
And Farnell agreed with both Hudson and Fetterman, suggesting that students experiment through trial and error to determine the right balance of work.
But Condiles said the most important thing of all is for students to have an idea of their wants and needs.
“Set your goals and get to it.”
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