What’s the verdict on academic guilt? Separating “doing” from productivity


By Zara Szigeti

Productivity guilt is such a menace when I am not working.

I feel terrible when my friends are working until 2AM, and I am fast asleep.

Productivity guilt is my conscience nagging me when I am out with friends or binge-watching Netflix instead of doing all the work I know I should be doing.

Productivity guilt may also be the feeling you are experiencing by reading this article instead of running an experiment on gait and balance or trying to get that publication accepted into Disability and Rehabilitation.

Essentially, productivity guilt is feeling guilty for not always doing something that is considered useful in society, which is oftentimes linked to some form of productivity (1).

Image source: Carl Heyerdahl (Unsplash)

Guilt Is a Self-Conscious Emotion

Researchers consider guilt, along with shame, embarrassment, and pride, to be a self-conscious emotion (2). Self-conscious emotions are those that cause a person to evaluate themselves against socially constructed standards―what others judge as acceptable.

When you experience these self-conscious emotions, it is a sign that you may not be acting in accordance with your values, or those held by society. Something we value in Canada, a meritocratic society (i.e., a society where power is based on achievement and merit), is productivity (3). Therefore, when we are not productive or busy, we feel like we are doing something wrong.

Self-conscious emotions are typically more harmful than beneficial since they can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression (4). However, some research suggests that self-conscious emotions are particularly important at helping individuals recognize and correct their social mistakes (5). Such emotions may also allow individuals to believe that the harder and longer they work, the more likely it is that they will land a job, get a promotion, and ultimately, receive recognition.

We perceive busyness as a good thing; a status symbol. The busier someone is, the higher their status is regarded in the eyes of others (6). It is unsurprising then, that medical doctors, who are highly esteemed, are also extremely busy (and often depressed) (7). Doing valuable and high-status work such as life-saving surgery is clearly important. However, the act of doing (i.e., the observable activities and occupations one engages in) is also important in the field of rehabilitation (8).

It’s a (Busy) Trap!

Yet all doing is not created equal; some people keep busy with meaningless tasks, keeping busy for the sake of keeping busy. This phenomenon, called the busy trap, occurs when people deliberately take on roles and activities to keep busy (9).

We complain about always being busy, so why would anyone want to always be busy? Well, Kreider (9) suggests it is because you are often afraid to experience the guilt that arises when you are not wrapped up in whatever you decide to call “work” that day. That is, we are essentially training ourselves to be busy using negative reinforcement (10); we repeatedly keep busy to avoid the dread of what might happen if we are not (9).

The busy trap is one we set ourselves. We cling to the anticipated great feeling of a packed day and completed to-do list. By constantly being busy and not having moments of idleness, creativity and problem-solving abilities can decrease over time (11), suggesting a dark side of the busy trap.

Academics are particularly vulnerable to experience the busy trap and feelings of productivity guilt (1), hence the more nuanced name of academic guilt. Interestingly, academic institutions may even promote the busy trap and productivity guilt through their culture of excellence, whereby students feel that there is no room for failure (12).

According to Dr. Emily Nalder, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, the University of Toronto’s culture of excellence “creates a standard/pressure that is challenging to meet, causing individuals to feel as if they need to work more or be more productive.”

“[University of Toronto’s culture of excellence] creates a standard/pressure that is challenging to meet, causing individuals to feel as if they need to work more or be more productive.” – Dr. Emily Nalder, Assistant Professor

But pressure does not exist only within the institutional culture. There is also pressure from our supervisors to submit work to more conferences and pump out more papers. Not to mention the pressure we put on ourselves to finish what we have started, proving that our hard work was worthwhile.

A Guilt Complex About Rehabilitation in Medicine’s Long Shadow

For me, simply being in the field of rehabilitation sciences contributes to my academic guilt and my need to feel productive.

Specifically, I feel guilty if I cannot justify rehabilitation’s place in medicine. If I am not productive and busy like everyone else in the field of medicine, then I feel less legitimate or successful than say, a graduate student in molecular biology. But, if I am busy like the molecular biologist, then I justify myself: I am productive and my discipline will be highly valued by society.

I know that my sense of worth should not be based on how busy I am. Nor should the value of rehabilitation be contingent on whether it fits in the medical mould.

Image source: Hush Naidoo (Unsplash)

As stated by a fellow rehabilitation student, “People think modern medicine is synonymous with things like genetics, surgery, or chemistry. Not rehab.” It is understandable that rehabilitation is under-valued in medicine since medicine is mostly cure-oriented, whereas rehabilitation focuses on improving quality of life and maximizing function and independence (13).

Unfortunately, prominent funding agencies rarely prioritize rehabilitation. Rather, the world’s largest funders of health and research distribute their financial support in a way that emphasizes epidemiology, immunology, and microbiology (14). It feels that when rehabilitation sciences are under-funded by these legitimatizing agencies, then we are not being recognized as valuable or capable of producing ground-breaking results.

Without receiving recognition, one might conclude that either what you are working on is not important or you are not being productive. That said, countering this guilt complex is not about proving rehabilitation’s validity, or how productive you are in the field of rehabilitation.

Rather, the trick is reminding people (including myself) that rehabilitation is uniquely important. After all, it is the branch of medicine where “the patient has more power than the doctor in setting limits and possibilities.” (13)

Rather, the trick is reminding people (including myself) that rehabilitation is uniquely important.

What Are Our Badges of Honour?

We often feel guilty when we are not productive. For years, we have been told that productivity leads to recognition and status. As though being productive and busy are badges of honour. We tell ourselves, “Obviously my life cannot be trivial or meaningless if I am so busy.” Yet our self-worth and quality of life should not be linked to our levels of productivity and recognition.

I have been caught in this trap for a while, telling myself that I am only legitimate in my field if I am busy, productive, and recognized by awards or publications. The point here is not for you to pity me based on how I link my self-worth to busyness. After all, researchers have found a human aversion to idleness, making us feel an urge to pile more onto our plates (15).

Rather, my point is to illustrate how productivity guilt and the busy trap can build up, causing students like myself to feel a constant need to push for our own legitimacy and for the legitimacy of our chosen field. Pushing to prove that rehabilitation scientists, just like neuroscientists, biologists, and chemists, are in fact dedicated.



And that rehabilitation is a legitimate branch of Medicine.


Featured illustration by Ingrid Barany for rehabINK.

To refer to this article, it can be cited as:

Szigeti Z. What’s the verdict on academic guilt? Separating “doing” from productivity. rehabINK. 2020:9. Available from: https://rehabinkmag.com

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