Want to Prevent “Laziness”? Context Is Key

What looks like apathy is more commonly trauma, exhaustion, and burnout.

At the University where I work, students get sent a lot of digital surveys. They get surveys from the university library and the tech help desk. They get surveys about their classes, and surveys about the University’s approach to environmental sustainability. This summer, they received a survey about the presence of police on campus and one about whether or not the spring semester should be moved entirely online. There are diversity and inclusion surveys, budget surveys, tuition surveys, and surveys on where the student activity fee should go.

The response rates on these surveys are dismal. Twenty percent if you’re lucky; often far more like 10%. Every time a new survey gets added to the pile, it makes matters even worse. Sometimes I hear university administrators bemoan our students for being so unreliable and unresponsive. Don’t they want to be heard? Are they really that apathetic?

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A person looking overwhelmed, sitting with their hands covering their face. Source: Christian Erfut courtesy of Unsplash.

I don’t think my students are lazy. I think they are simply overwhelmed. College classes were already a grueling and time-consuming endeavor before the pandemic hit; since everything has been moved online, the amount of bureaucratic busy-work we all must engage in seems to have grown threefold. Check your learning management system. Upload your assignments. Check the class forums. Check the Slack channel. Check your email. Don’t forget your course evaluation survey!

When people are run ragged by expectations and find themselves absolutely drowning in too many demands, their burnout can look a hell of a lot like laziness. If it becomes impossible to keep track of everything you’re expected to do, and you lose the mental energy to prioritize your goals, sometimes you have no choice but to let everything drop. One of the key hallmarks of burnout, in fact, is emotional numbness and compassion fatigue. Overwhelmed people literally lose the ability to care about important issues or other people.

This exhausted detachment is especially common in circumstances where a person feels powerless or unheard. I imagine that after responding to dozens upon dozens of digital surveys about a possible tuition hike and having their feedback seemingly be ignored, students start to lose any emotional investment in the survey process. The same thing happens in punishingly hard classes, too. If students find themselves absolutely drowning in forum posts, reflection papers, quizzes, and research reports, with no end in sight, they may lose the will to carry on.

A similar dynamic also helps to explain why voter turnout in the United States is always extremely low. It is true that a lower percentage of eligible voters makes it to the polls in the U.S. than in most other countries. This fact is interpreted by many as a sign of American apathy; U.S. citizens are routinely mocked for their political disengagement and “laziness.”

However, to really make sense of this social problem, we need to consider the social and political context that gives rise to it. First, consider that the United States has more frequent elections than any other country in the world. Like the students whose inboxes are barraged with an endless stream of university surveys, American voters are overwhelmed by frequent calls to go vote.

Most democratic countries only hold a major election once every four or five years. In the United States, we have some array of primaries, regional elections, state elections, ballot measures, and national elections every single year, often multiple times per year. This alone is naturally going to drive down turnout. The more often you ask someone to vote, the more likely it becomes they’ll miss an election or two out of sheer busyness.

Once you take into account other systemic forces that suppress political participation in the United States, such as our challenging voter registration process and the fact that election day is not a federally recognized holiday, it becomes easy to see why turnout is so low. We put up more barriers to voting than any other country does and we ask people to vote more often. Yet when turnout is low as a result, we shame non-voters for being privileged and lazy. This, despite a growing body of evidence that shows that most non-voters are poor people of color, not the well-off, apathetic youth that the media makes them out to be.

When we dismiss people for being “lazy,” we fail to recognize the structural issues that prevented them from taking action. Instead of demanding that elections in the United States become more equitable and accessible, we look down our noses at people who are unable to make it to the polls. Instead of finding a more fair way of collecting student feedback (and really listening to that feedback), we shrug our shoulders and conclude students are too careless to weigh in on important matters.

We extend the same harshness and judgment to all manner of people whom society has failed; homeless people who are too depressed and traumatized to get jobs; people suffering from substance addictions who can’t white-knuckle their way to sobriety; single parents who are stretched thin and don’t have the time or energy to finish their college degrees. It’s much more convenient to brand them as “lazy” than it is to question why they are struggling, and what we can do as a society to help.

The belief in a just world tells us that if someone fails repeatedly, it is because they deserved it. They failed to work hard enough. They chose, somehow, to lack the drive to succeed. As if anyone would ever want to feel helpless and hopeless, adrift in a world where their voice isn’t heard.

Research has shown time and time again that if you want to motivate people to take action, shame and judgment are not the way to go. In order to encourage a beneficial behavior (whether it is voting, responding to a survey, wearing a mask, or getting a vaccine), you have to identify the barriers that are blocking a person from taking action, and you remove as many of those barriers as you can.

The next time you find yourself moved to judge a person for seeming apathetic or “lazy,” try asking yourself what might be getting in their way. What busywork is bogging down their day? What trauma are they carrying with them? How many small, irritating demands do they have piled up in front of them, all vying for a scrap of their very limited attention? How might a fairer system help lighten their load?

Shame has never made anyone feel less stressed out or more empowered. Blame is not an effective route to behavioral change. When numerous people fail to meet expectations in a system that demands a great deal of them, it is the system that is at fault. “Lazy” people are not the problem — laziness does not exist.

This piece also appeared in Psychology Today.

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