On That Grind (When We Grind Too Hard)

In a wondrous etymological evolution, the word “grind” has once again entered into the vocabulary of the average student. “Nah man, I’m just grinding right now,” or “Yeah this week is a grind” are now ways of telling your fellow students just how badly exams are working you over. “It’s a grind” is the best response to that well-meaning relative that asks how school is going. Honestly, it’s a phenomenal answer: School, and the immense workload associated with it, truly does grind you down at times. Working on that paper at 2 a.m., waking up early for that exam, or pouring another cup of free black sludgecoffee during finals really makes you feel worn down. You begin to feel like you’ve been spread thin, both drawn out and tired—the thin purplish skin under your eyes is the perfect representation of how one feels during “the grind”: utterly depleted.

Yet, this is just how it is. College students across the country have reported time and time again they are overworked and sleep-deprived, a trend that only continues for many when they enter the workforce. Having worked a full-time and part-time job concurrently over the summer, I questioned why it is that such constant work is commonplace. The grind for a GPA is as culturally accepted as the grind for a paycheck—it’s simply how things are. But why?

During one of those weeks where I worked 60-plus hours, I really started to question why the heck I was working that much. But more than that, I started to think about why it’s so accepted. Back in the early 1900s, workers were definitely worse off, with many averaging over 100 hours per week. In 1923, however, Henry Ford introduced the eight-hour work day/40-hour work week, which has since become standard. Yet, that was almost 100 years ago. Throughout the past century, technology and the workforce has changed dramatically, but our norms for the amount of time we should work hasn’t. Did Henry Ford really strike a perfect medium for work hours that translates flawlessly from the early 1920s to now? The answer, quite simply, is no.

Recently, a New Zealand firm implemented a four-day work week with five days of pay, so employees got paid the same amount and worked one day less. The firm found that productivity increased among its employees, and that their work output was better. Employees spent less time on breaks, and the work they did was more efficient. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has entered a workplace before: A comedic impression of office employees is that they barely work, spending time on their computers or playing pranks (The Office is a prime example of this). Government employees (especially those at the DMV) are notorious for seeming to take as long as physically possible doing their job—many employees know that a lot of time spent “working” is truly spent avoiding that work.

The opposite end of this spectrum is where you have employees working overtime and staying late at the office—again, a common trope for any romantic movie with an overworked and underloved employee. College students fit uniquely in this spectrum of workloads, spending much of their time neither in a job nor in a classroom, but doing homework and extracurriculars. It is this complete reduction of the barrier between work and life-outside-work that makes the college student’s workload unique, making some weeks feel like a grind.

How many students go to the Plex the first few weeks of class, then never go again? How many students start the year sleeping at least seven hours a night and end it hopefully getting four? How many students actually eat breakfast everyday? Are they simply lazy or weak-willed? Or is it that the current workforce culture looming over their heads doesn’t allow for a healthy work-life balance? While one New Zealand firm seems to care about the balance of its employees’ lives, most employers do not. If you tell an employer that you can’t work because you need to sleep or you have to leave early to go to the gym, you’ll likely find yourself without any work very soon. Not only is the current workforce culture operating under norms that were set a century ago, but every other part of any worker’s life is being relegated to a side project. Your physical and mental being takes a backseat in the face of one’s employment, and health is neglected nowhere more than it is in college.

College, afterall, can be brutal, and we all just accept that fact because we must. Throughout an academic year, one gets worn down. Pieces begin to fall away: Going to the gym, eating healthy, sleeping right, and simply taking the time to maintain good mental health are all parts of a student’s life that fade away as work increases, internships begin, and the grind continues. Sleep deprivation is endemic in colleges, yet despite being atrocious for one’s health, it continues. Mental health is a constantly neglected aspect of student life, and students constantly sacrifice something to make time to finish all of their work. Often, the work-life balance tips so sharply toward work that one forgets what life is like outside of due dates.

While it is difficult to offer any solution to this problem, seeing as one can’t suddenly revolutionize the workforce overnight, it’s nonetheless an issue that should be at the forefront of one’s mind. With companies like the one in New Zealand starting to change the trajectory of the working week, and companies like Google and Goldman Sachs offering modern workplaces with slides and Kombucha taps, maybe it’s time to start truly evaluating what makes a healthy work-life balance. Maybe it’s time to think of going to the gym as equally important as going to work or sleeping eight hours a night as important as your GPA. Maybe—just maybe—it’s time to take care of yourself.

But hey, who has time for that?

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor