Your Work Is Not Your Worth

By Lindsey Wright

Time is money. This is a common saying most of us have heard. On the surface, the phrase simply means your time has value. Looking deeper, the saying implies to some that your time could, and should, be spent making money. Otherwise, you’re losing out on potential earnings. But why should we prioritize money? Can our time not be better spent doing other things? We have spent our entire lives being taught that our worth is tied to our productivity, but I argue this should not be the case. We value our productivity over our health and happiness because of the way we were raised. As college students, we need to put our physical and mental health first for our own sake.

I remember when I was in 5th grade, I was in the advanced math group with one of my friends. When we were done with our work, we would draw together. We both preferred art over math, and we were quiet so we didn’t disturb anyone. Yet, rather than allowing us time to be creative and rest our minds, the teacher would see that we were done and come over and give us more work. This attitude of constantly asking more of students is present in colleges as well. If you have time for fun, why aren’t you studying or networking or working a second job, or looking for internships?

A classic example of how productivity culture is engrained into us as children are attendance awards. Sometimes children get sick, have doctor appointments, or just need to take a mental health day. Attendance awards teach kids that taking time for themselves and their needs should be punished while prioritizing school above all else should be rewarded. Yes, education is important, but so is health. Nina Lopez, a senior at UCF majoring in English, had a potentially cancerous mole when she was in elementary school. She says, “A pediatric plastic surgeon gave me an appointment for surgery on a Friday morning. Because of this surgery, I was absent one day and therefore didn’t qualify for the attendance award. It upset me that an excused absence was marked against me, as my health is a big priority, and I felt that the surgery merited missing a day without punishment.” This is just one example of how society engrains productivity culture into us at an early age.

This emphasis on productivity and the idea that we should always be working follows us throughout our lives, and it is particularly exemplified in college students. Upon entering college, we are on our own for the first time. So, we fall back on the values that were instilled in us as we grew up. While some college students do “screw up,” so to speak, and do not spend enough time on their classes, others overcommit themselves. Throughout our lives, we are taught that our worth is in the work that we do, so we prioritize work above all else.

College is expensive, so many students at UCF are on various scholarships. Many of us, including me, are on the Bright Futures scholarship. Bright Futures has a 12-credit hour requirement for the Fall and Spring semesters, so students are required to take a certain number of classes if they want their education to be paid for. Yet, this workload is not ideal for many students. The scholarship only covers the cost of tuition, so lots of college students also have demanding jobs so they can pay for food, rent, etc.

Bright Futures requires students to maintain a certain GPA as well; you can’t just be getting by in your classes – you have to excel. There’s nothing wrong with excellence in and of itself, but when you’re required to go above and beyond in all your classes, while also working and dealing with whatever else life throws at you, it’s easy to slip up and burn out. And the price for slipping up is steep. If you lose your scholarship, there is an appeals process, but that’s more stress and more hoops to jump through. While Bright Futures is only one example, many scholarships have similar expectations. If you want to be able to afford a college education, you must commit to the toxic standard of excellence perpetuated by productivity culture.

Scholarship requirements not only stop students from taking much-needed breaks but also prevent them from taking the time to try out extra classes or change their majors too many times. In 2009, Florida implemented an excess hours surcharge in order to motivate students to graduate “as quickly and efficiently as possible.” Rather than prioritizing the effectiveness of an education and recognizing that different students have different paths, Florida legislators prefer efficiency, pumping out college graduates as quickly as possible so they can enter the workforce and start contributing to the economy.

Charges vary based on when you entered college, but if you take more than the allotted credit hours UCF has allowed for your major, you will have to pay a surcharge of up to 100% of the normal tuition rate. And these hours don’t just include classes you’ve passed. Failed classes, withdrawn classes, and repeated classes all count toward your excess hours. The time is money concept is so ingrained into our society that Florida has made it legal to charge students more just for taking more classes.

The constant, repetitive grind of attending class, doing homework, working a job, all while feeling mentally or physically unwell can lead to burnout. If you were already feeling ill, not taking the time to rest will exacerbate your problems, and if you weren’t sick before, you’ll start feeling the physical symptoms of burnout like insomnia, fatigue, and even heart disease or high blood pressure.

The world is both metaphorically and literally on fire, yet we are still putting our productivity before our health. And in a sense, this is because we have to. We need money in order to afford to meet our basic human needs. In our capitalist society, we can’t just quit our jobs and stop working.

But there are ways we can push back against productivity culture:

  • Practice saying “no” and not overcommitting yourself.
  • Take breaks without guilt
  • Work exactly as much as is required by your job description and no more.
  • Remember that your workplace will be fine without you while you’re away, even if your boss makes it seem like it won’t be.
  • Give yourself the grace to mess up and go through life at your own pace. Progress is not linear.
  • Put yourself and your needs before the needs of the institutions you are a part of.

These things are, of course, easier said than done. Something that has helped me is setting aside periods of time to do absolutely nothing work-related. This has allowed me to spend Saturdays binge-watching TV without guilt and to spend my spring breaks playing video games with the knowledge that any deadlines I have coming up can be dealt with after the break. I have also taken to following accounts on Instagram that support taking breaks. I spend a lot of time on social media, so these constant reminders are helpful to keep me from getting too stressed out. One of my favorites is @thenapministry, an account centered around rest as resistance.

We can also work to advocate for more leniency in the systems of our society. The excess hours surcharge was a statute implemented by the Florida legislature. It can also be overturned. There is currently an appeals process in place for Bright Futures and other scholarships should something unexpected occur, but the system could be changed so that breaks are the expectation rather than the norm. We can work to de-stigmatize rest and push back against the hustle culture of always needing to work. Your work is what you do, not who you are.