“Exhaustion is not okay,” my mentor said to me as I described another brutal week of struggling to balance all of my academic, social and work-related commitments. As midterm season descended upon Brandeis, I accepted that the level of exhaustion and stress I was experiencing prior was child’s play compared to the marathon of essays, exams, emails and books I would have to finish within two weeks. I was prepared to endure the late nights, long days and short break times until I met with my mentor a couple of weeks ago, where she told me, “exhaustion is not okay.” This was not the most remarkable piece of advice I ever received, but it was enough to snap me awake to the realization that the same metric I was using to measure my value—my productivity—only lowered me deeper into a stress-laden, sleep-deprived hole. 

In high school, my friends and I would casually throw around the phrase, “We’ll sleep when we’re dead.” We didn’t value our health and sanity, but rather class ranks, grades, resumes and prestigious college acceptances. Looking back, what’s most disturbing about this time in my life was not the cryptic motto my friends and I told each other and ourselves, but that no adult—whether it were a teacher or school counselor—intervened to say that our physical and mental well-being was more important than fleeting moments of success. According to a 2010 sleep study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health, “a scant 8% of US high school students get the recommended amount of sleep. Some 23% get six hours of sleep on an average school night, and 10% get only 5 hours.” We sacrifice basic human necessities for the sake of claiming victory in our capitalist productivity-driven society. But, no one shares with the youth that there are no victors in toxic productivity culture—only perpetrators and victims, and often we are both. 

Emerging from a year and a half of virtual learning, I found that we have fallen deeper into the pits of toxic productivity culture. We tell our peers they should take care of themselves and that their health is far more important than their academics, clubs and other social engagements. Yet, when an individual is not working at our pace, the façade of altruistic self-care begins to crumble. Self-care and our basic necessities such as eating and sleeping are only acceptable as long as they don’t interfere with our productivity. We are praised for being passionate students, engaged collaborators and hard-working employees when we are sleep-deprived. But when we start to prioritize physical and mental health, suddenly our accolades begin to fall away. In this era of post-pandemic reflection, how is it possible that certain demographics of individuals—such as high school and college students, employees and especially those of color—are experiencing prolonged injustices?

Rest and sleep deprivation is a justice issue permeating all levels of our society. From classrooms to workplaces, Black individuals are incredibly overworked, underpaid and exhausted. In an interview with NPR’s Sarah McCammon, founder of the Nap Ministry, Tricia Hersey explains that rest and sleep deprivation are not merely a modern-day phenomenon brought on by the advent of technology, remote school and work (although they are certainly part of it). She frames sleep deprivation as a justice issue “because it’s been traced from all the way back during slavery. Slavery was horrific... during those times for black people, we were human machines. And so grind culture continues today to try and attempt to make us all human machines and not to see the divinity of who we really are.” Toxic productivity culture, or as Hersey calls it, grind culture, separates us from our humanity. It cuts us off from the deepest parts of our being, and it slowly chips away at our sanity, physical health and creativity, and it deludes us into believing that our value is truly derived from the products of our productivity—like grades, promotions and praises. 

Then, if being “valued” means I will be exhausted, do I want to be “valued” in the ways traditionally perpetrated by our capitalistic society? The appeals of the praises and grades are no longer enticing. As Hersey explains in an Atlantic interview with physician and writer James Hamblin and podcasts executive producer Katherine Wells, “White supremacy and capitalism have stolen not only our rest but also our intuition. To think that in this day and age, there’s no time for you to at least take 10 minutes to reclaim rest and daydream and shut your eyes or debrief for a little bit longer before you go to shower, that is not true.” While many of us who juggle various obligations are unable to obtain eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, our rest can be reclaimed through activities. We need to meet ourselves halfway. If rest is not gained through sufficient sleep, it can be captured in the mundaneness of our everyday life. As Hersey explains, rest can be found wherever our bodies are because our bodies are the true site of liberation from our capitalist, productivity driven society. She proclaims, “the time to rest is now.”

We deserve to sleep and rest, not because we work ourselves to exhaustion to meet increasing demands of society, but because we are human beings and not machines. We are filled with unbridled joy, creativity, passion and inspiration. But if we do not allow ourselves the time and space to simply be as we are, we will have mounting accolades and diminished spirits.