Is Productivity Always… Healthy?
By Professor Sara Cumming
In academe, intense productivity is rewarded while low productivity is looked down upon—but both can be destructive. Professor Sara Cumming opens up about the complexities of productivity and the personal background that makes her work important.
Like many people, I struggled at the beginning of the pandemic with reoccurring feelings of panic and anxiety. I had been through anxiety before, but this time the disorder hit quickly, and was so debilitating that I needed to go back on medication. I embarked on a year of intensive therapy, and it’s ultimately shed light not only on how the myriad parts of my life have intersected, but also on the real roots of my professional output and productivity.
I wear many hats in my professional life. At Sheridan, I have served on Senate, LAC, Academic Policy Committee and Hiring Committees, and I currently serve on the Research Ethics Board (REB), the Research Equity Diversity Inclusivity Action Committee (REDIAC), and the Board of Governors as the college-wide faculty representative. I’ve written a textbook called Unlocking Sociology, illustrated by seven Sheridan College students, and since coming to Sheridan I have been part of five externally funded research teams. But what arouses curiosity amongst my colleagues is the fact that I am also the Executive Director of a not-for-profit organization called Home Suite Hope. People often ask how it is possible that I can be a full-time professor and an executive director at the same time. The truth is that these two roles intersect; not only does Home Suite Hope’s programming enact my research recommendations, but it also does work that’s personally important to me.
Home Suite Hope is a Halton based not for profit that provides a four-year wrap-around program for homeless single parent families. I am the Executive Director of this organization and have eight staff members—all women—who work under my leadership. There are currently 30 families in programming who came to us through referral from the Halton Region’s housing and homelessness team. Once the single mothers are referred to us, our team works to find them housing in market rentals in Burlington, Oakville or Milton, and enrolls them in two courses of academic upgrading at Sheridan, after which they can enter into one of 20 preapproved Sheridan programs. Sheridan gives the single mothers bursaries to cover their tuition and local organizations pay for their books and transportation. I am extremely proud of the program because it works! One hundred percent of program graduates are off social assistance, paying their own market rent, and 86% are employed full-time.
What people might not realize is that this work is inspired by my own experience of trauma. My early life was tumultuous. Both my parents have difficulties with mental health and addiction. At 19, my mother was alone with a four-year-old (me) and a two-year old. Later, she would have two more children with one of my stepfathers—who today remains my most constant parental figure, and an amazing grandparent to my children. She developed an addiction to alcohol, leaving me in the position of being a parent to my siblings. Her life remains unstable today—she’s continually on the brink of homelessness.
My father is a bit more complicated to explain. He has a host of mental and physical health issues that have led to a reliance on narcotics and unsteady work. He tries to live off grid as much as possible, residing in a small “cottage” powered by solar panels and heated by wood burning stoves. His front yard is overgrown with weeds so that the bees can pollinate, and his backyard is full of chickens. All of this, in the middle of a city, surrounded by neighbours. He’s never around, and never was. Six months of the year, he moves from city to city in Mexico, parking next to the ocean for two weeks, living with locals and moving on.
Suffice it to say, my parents’ life choices resulted in a severe lack of stability. I’ve always understood that growing up with a single mother in poverty—and then having my own children as a single mother in poverty—is the impetus for my research expertise and my attachment to Home Suite Hope.
But until I began undergoing therapy during the pandemic, I wasn’t aware of how my parents’ instability continues to affect my mental health as a grown woman. Many people who struggle with childhood trauma turn to drugs and alcohol, or live with symptoms of depression. But my mental health issues have never been properly recognized because they display themselves as high productivity. When you live with addict family members, you often live a life void of praise and compliments. Your brain becomes trapped in a cycle of wondering “why am I not enough?” or “why wont s/he stay for me?” As you grow into adulthood you take on many more responsibilities than normal.
This year I have learned that I find my self-worth through being a high achiever. Everything I do is at an extreme level. I meditate and workout every day before the majority of my colleagues are even awake. I batch cook everything from scratch on Sundays so that my family eats healthy meals all week. I work two full time jobs while having four daughters, two dogs and a cat. As soon as one project ends, I have five lined up. When I say I want to get involved more, I get involved in everything. And when I receive a grant or an accolade, I have that 5-minute euphoria of feeling like I am enough….but then it dissipates, and I must find it again. This is an extremely unhealthy way to live. It has resulted in something Clare Booth calls “Achiever Fever”—constant striving coupled with chronic feelings of inadequacy.
Academia perpetuates these feelings of unworthiness, producing conditions whereby colleagues are in constant competition with one another and where one person’s success indicates another’s inadequacies or loss (for example, if I win a grant, it means that someone else from Sheridan was unsuccessful). This presents a bind: as a feminist, I have taught my daughters to be loud and proud about their accomplishments to live inside their skin even as they own their mistakes. But accomplishment is more complicated than that. When my successes are announced, some colleagues roll their eyes. Others claim I am “giving my labour for free,” and undermining them. Some accuse me of being a sell-out; very few are genuinely gracious.
On the other hand, if management thinks if I can achieve all these things without SWF time, then they may want to withhold that SWF time from others. And when my colleagues get upset about that possibility, the remarks make their way back to me and then feed my own feelings of unworthiness. It’s a vicious cycle that I am just now trying to unsnarl at the age of 46.
So, how do we do it? I have learned that it’s difficult to be loud and proud about my accomplishments as a woman while also advocating for my peerswhose life circumstances don’t allow for the same type of flexibility that mine do. I have come to understand that my mental health issues that present themselves as work ethic; my past has culminated into an unhealthy level of productivity. Toxic academic environments have helped fuel this behaviour.
In academe, feverish productivity is rewarded while low productivity is looked down upon—but both can be destructive. I don’t want anyone comparing themselves to my level of productivity. And I don’t want other female colleagues judged by whether or not they measure up to it when its origins are traumatic.
We need to find a way to genuinely support ambitious women faculty. We need to recognize our achievements without exploiting them. We’ve long understood as academics that it is inappropriate to measure a woman by her level of attractiveness; I argue that it is time to stop measuring us against each other’s capacity to juggle multiple roles simultaneously. We need to stop promoting that high productivity through chronic overworking is a badge of honour, and start finding ways to support women (and men/trans/gender fluid) in reaching their full potential. I’m also very proud that this is part of Home Suite Hope’s mandate—helping single mothers reach their full potential.
I hope that my participation on the REDIAC committee can help find ways that we can be more equitable, diverse and inclusive of all life circumstances. And in the meantime, I hope that we grow in empathy and understanding as a faculty. That we learn to reach out to one another, to show our appreciation of the space each one of us occupies within our working world. That we try not to view each other as competition, rather as allies who remain optimistic that this can, and will be, a better working environment for us all.
- Sara Cumming is a professor of Sociology in FHASS, the Executive Director of Home Suite Hope.