The Cult of Exhaustion

We live in a world that privileges non-stop hard work and sleepless nights of due diligence over mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. It’s a very real phenomenon, with social media feeds and television shows constantly glorifying sleepless nights and excessive caffeine consumption. Our heroes are ‘round the clock CEOs, athletes who train day in and day out and media moguls who slave away on social media to provide fans with 24/7 content.

Welcome to the cult of exhaustion.

At the very core of American values is the virtue of hard work, and the belief that with a will, there’s a way. Capitalist imperatives to work until we drop and earn as much money as possible — allowing us to collect material signifiers of our social status — saturate our world view. We value productivity and output over mental health and sufficient sleep. We value exertion to the point of physical exhaustion over relaxation and recuperation. We laugh when we forget to eat a meal or two, and we bond over our espresso addictions with colleagues.

This cultural phenomenon certainly isn’t for lack of knowledge: we know the negative physical effects of sleep deprivation, nutrient deficiencies and reliance on substances to boost our energy. But our fast-paced world spins too quickly, and the demand for productivity, profit and advancement outweighs the dangers of exhaustion culture. For many, overexertion is a survival tool, an absolute necessity in a world undergoing global economic collapse. For others, it’s a cultural ideology so powerful that it plagues us with guilt or shame when we need a sick day or a day off for unexpected circumstances.

In many ways, college life is a microcosm of the “real world,” and exhaustion culture is a prime example. Colleges and universities like SUNY New Paltz offer late night study spaces with the expectation that students will pull all-nighters to ace an exam or finish a term paper. During midterms and finals seasons, my college extends the late night study room hours even more.

Prestigious institutions like Boston College and Columbia University regularly update their late night study spaces’ hours online. In 2011, University of Central Florida made local news after being the last public university in the state to offer 24-hour study spaces. But having these spaces and touting their availability can contribute to the normalization of exhaustion culture, and in some cases, fall just short of endorsement.

Students need safe, accessible and appropriately equipped study spaces. As a college student, I know very well the frustration of not having a place to read for class or work on an assignment. But we owe it to overworked and overwhelmed students to balance late night study opportunities with information about how to organize our responsibilities in healthy ways. We owe it to those with disabilities, mental health issues, anxiety or chronic conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome to promote a healthier balance of work, social events and relaxation time. We owe it to minimum wage workers who barely get by to support pushes for livable wages and regulated hours. We owe it to those who cannot work and must support a family to advocate for unemployment benefits and financial and emotional support.

We owe it to ourselves and our bodies to stop the glamorization of exhaustion and overexertion. Because it’s not cool, and it’s not pretty.