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Emotional Contagion: an insight into Oxford University’s terrifying epidemic of burnout and hyper-productivity

Dania Kamal Aryf criticises Oxford University’s culture of hyper-productivity.

CW: Mental health issues, chronic illness, death, suicide 

The main character Patrick Bateman from the film American Psycho, studied at Harvard and works on Wall Street. He is wealthy, intelligent, charismatic, attractive – he embodies conventional ideals of ‘success’, and surrounds himself with important, influential people. Yet, he is also permanently on edge, and he knows it. 

Detached from his humanity is the shell of a man whose life is governed by entirely abstract and erratic perceptions of himself and his surroundings, distant from reality. In public, Bateman conforms to the façade of a calm exterior that is seen as highly desirable, yet, his inner world remains plagued by existential angst.

I could not help but notice how the neuroticism of Bateman and his circle seem to portray an eerily similar parallel to many of us here at Oxford. 

While the film remains a timeless classic that brilliantly satirises The White Male Psyche™ in a world of relentless material pursuit, Patrick Bateman nevertheless embodies a genuine sense of always being “on the verge of frenzy”, that many of us constantly experience. Especially with our endless ‘essay crises’, weekly all-nighters, excessive drug and alcohol consumption, and the obsession with grades and internships – many Oxford students continuously joke about eventually losing grip on their own sanity. But how much of this is merely cynical humour, and how much truth are we revealing when laughing at our own misery? 

Amongst these dreaming spires, emotional contagion hangs thick in  the air like an intoxicating fog. It is a destructive concoction of morbid perfectionism, righteous self-obsession, and a sense of perpetual tiredness. 

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic had exacerbated our global mental-health crisis, Oxford’s ‘work hard, play hard’ culture has still been notorious for its destructive effects. In 2013, for example, Oxford was cited as “the worst place to battle depression”, and in 2016, the SU Welfare report showed that 58% of undergraduates think that being at Oxford has had negative impacts on their mental health, and that BAME students were twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression whilst at Oxford. The following year, a Metro article cited Oxford students as being ‘the most miserable’ in the UK, and more recently in 2018 and 2019, students were still writing about how this university continues to brazenly fuel a mental health epidemic. 

The statistics on suicide rates at Oxford are also just as disturbing, and yet, remains nothing new. Over a period of 30 years, from 1976 to 2006, as many as 48 Oxford students had died by suicide, according to a case study published in 2010. As recent as last year, a student from Harris Manchester died of an overdose, and in 2013, Balliol College saw two of its students fall victim to suicide, with both incidents taking place only 3 months apart from each other. These terrifying headlines and statistics lie merely at the surface of Oxford’s genuine mental health crisis – as countless incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts, psychiatric visits to A&E at the John Radcliffe Hospital, and students suffering in silence still go unreported. 

While these issues have never been exclusive to Oxford, it is perhaps fair to argue that the culture at this university nevertheless exacerbates it. We are constantly pushed to our limits – burning out without having the time to properly recover, and then instantly expected to be on our feet again. In enduring the solitude and isolation that accompanies Western individualism, and the cut-throat competition of our work-obsessed, capitalist world – our individual productivity ultimately becomes necessary to ensure one’s survival.

Whether within the workforce, or within this university, the measurement of one’s worth based on their productivity and functionality, essentially remains the same. From a eugenicist perspective, it could also be argued that our society also measures the value of one’s existence through their extent of material contribution, instead of all lives being seen as equally valuable, simply by virtue of being human. Especially within the myopic Oxford bubble, this sentiment becomes so amplified to a point where it is sometimes impossible to ignore. 

In a strange way, being at Oxford has also further highlighted the many contradictions of our human existence. Here, we are constrained by the theoretical abstractness of academia, yet equally liberated by the privileges and opportunities that would be difficult to find elsewhere. We are sheltered, as we are exposed, and knowledgeable, as we are ignorant. In our pursuit of understanding more about our world, we end up understanding less so about ourselves – or rather, feeling like we have learnt too much, to a point where it simply becomes overwhelmingly incomprehensible. 

While this same problem has been around for generations, and is ultimately nothing new, one could also argue that our generation experiences a much heightened sense of existential angst and unhealthy competition, largely due to living in an increasingly virtual society. Our online presence that we cautiously curate (whether through Linkedin, Twitter or Instagram) has become a hallmark of identity, an assertion of our existence, and a vain pursuit of validation. The desire to be recognised for one’s worth is only innate, and nothing to be ashamed of – yet, in an echo chamber where everyone screams to be heard, it becomes impossible to not drown in the loudness of one’s own insecurity.

Our culture of hyper-productivity demands us to ‘live up to our full potential’, but are we truly living our honest lives if we are merely chasing endless material pursuits after another? More seriously, I ask this as a genuine, non-rhetorical question: are most of us actually happy? Or, like Patrick Bateman, are we all just a little bit anxious, insecure, and always on the verge of frenzy?  

We murder our soulful and spiritual selves in pursuit of a material self who relentlessly chases after infinite ambitions. We exchange healthy hours of sleep for more caffeine and extra time in the library. We trade few meaningful relationships for a large network of fleeting, superficial connections. We regard ‘intellectual discourse’ as more worthwhile than small talk about the weather. We over-analyse the scientific, the structural, the social, and the psychological intricacies of our strange little world, while slowly losing touch of our own humanity. 

“Best advice I got when I entered academia: We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind,” was a Tweet I saw a long time ago, and have held onto since. Yet, ironically, I failed to realise how “being kind” was also supposed to include kindness to myself, above all else. “Being kind to myself” did not entail being selfish, irresponsible or lazy. But instead, it meant the recognition of my own worth that still offers so much room for genuine curiosity, hard work, and achievement – in a way that does not kill me. Most importantly, “being kind to myself” entailed not comparing myself to others, because after all, I came here to learn, not to compete. 

As a disabled student who reluctantly had to rusticate, I now realise that this was, perhaps, the universe’s way of telling me to be kinder to myself, in allowing me some time off from academics. In hindsight, it has also given me the opportunity to slowly reconnect with my soul, and allow myself to heal. 

Yet, the struggles I endure, and the systemic barriers that I overcome and work to dismantle whilst being disabled at Oxford, are not meant to be a demonstration of my ‘resilience’, or an example of ‘never giving up’. Instead, they are merely experiences of what makes me human, especially in a broken world that has been fundamentally designed to kill us all.  

But still, I refuse to die – at least not yet. 
I realise that I no longer want to work myself to an early grave by conforming to unrealistic standards of “success”, or by constantly putting myself “out there, achieving great things”.

Instead, I simply wish to just be.

Slowly, I am learning to embrace the wholeness of my existence – in all its beautiful significance, in all its tragic meaninglessness, and its endless contradictions of being human.

Image Credit: Microbiz Mag / CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com

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