You should quit your job. Or at least consider it. If not your job, then maybe a club or co-curricular activity, or take that one awful class pass/no entry. Seriously — you’re probably doing a lot of work right now, and that can get overwhelming. It’s hot, you’re in school during the summer, and even the bare minimum of a mid-semester break has been denied to you. As much as anyone can applaud your fortitude for keeping your head above water, there is value in reducing your responsibilities and embracing free time. You also wouldn’t be alone in this decision — in April 2021 alone, 4 million workers in the U.S. quit their jobs.
Oberlin prides itself on the diversity of its activities and the numerous opportunities available to students. Students often glorify a round-the-clock schedule defined by coffee-addled journeys across campus to accomplish every task under the sun. The underlying expectation for many students is that we should be working through the night and on weekends. This results in students feeling like they never truly get a break, that they always have to be “on,” which is likely one of the reasons that academic institutions work long breaks into a normal academic calendar.
To be fair, Obies accomplish a lot, and students have every right to be proud of their efforts. But it’s also worth examining the cost of this labor. It is too easy for clubs to turn into part-time jobs or exhausting leadership positions, and for hobbies to be commodified into experiences for future job interviews. Unfortunately, the inevitable aftermath of stretching yourself too thin is self-immolated burnout. At the tail end of the pandemic, and with a reinvigorated abundance of tempting activities, each of us stands a chance of overcommitting our schedules.
This workaholic culture is a problem that reaches further than Oberlin’s campus. Culturally, the United States embraces work as a reflection of moral character and views success in one’s career as paramount. In spring 2020, when remote work first took hold, Americans began working an extra three hours each day. When we have free time, many of us are conditioned to fill it the only way we know how: with more work. Considering the fact that a recent study from Iceland has shown that four-day work weeks result in similar or higher levels of productivity and happiness compared to a regular workweek, it’s more than a little concerning that we seem to be headed in the opposite direction.
In recommending that students quit their jobs, we want to recognize that for many this isn’t feasible. The underlying system that manufactures the fallacy that being overworked is a moral imperative — capitalism — also creates the inequalities that entrap many into work. Many students who have to support themselves don’t have the luxury to consider quitting a job. The creeping anxiety of one day entering a hyper-competitive job market also makes it easy to feel that our résumés are perpetually insufficient and incomplete, which often isn’t the case. Given this, we hope students could find some respite in cutting down on extracurriculars or class work where possible.
It is a lot easier to say, “just quit,” than to actually do it. A far more fundamental line needs to be drawn first: one that delineates between a balanced workload and unhealthy work practices. To know when you’re crossing this line, ask yourself whether you’re gaining more than you’re sacrificing, and if you don’t have the time to consider this balance, something is already awry. The fact is, the lack of time to reflect and just invest in yourself is an experience felt across Oberlin’s entire student population, and a narrative of accomplishment defined by the fewest number of hours slept in a week only enables a cycle of unsustainable routines.
If quitting your job isn’t financially feasible, and you’re still feeling burned out, this is an opportunity to ask for help. While capitalism does not have empathy, faculty can. Professors and supervisors on campus should be lenient and understanding about burnout from COVID-19, especially as we face this unprecedented and draining summer semester. Most students who have to work to earn money already have at least two jobs in Oberlin, and they should receive special consideration from their instructors during this high stress period.
Prioritizing things that give us joy benefits our engagement with whichever tasks remain. Having more time for friends, hobbies, and activities with no other purpose than to entertain and uplift ourselves is valuable in itself. Although there might be initial moments of doubt, with each successive day of prioritizing ourselves, we can find new types of joy.