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The problems with hustle culture — and how it's tied to mental health

November 7, 2022 - 18 min read
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    We’ve all heard about hustle culture.

    It’s a notion embedded deeply into our societal and professional norms. In fact, it’s been romanticized as something we know as the American Dream. This idea is that anyone anywhere can reach their goals if only for one thing: they hustle and work hard to achieve them.

    But we also know there are some real problems with burnout and stress. Among global workers, stress levels among the world’s workers have reached an all-time high this year. So how can employees thrive when today’s hustle culture asks them to work harder, stay busy, and do more? 

    Burnout has serious implications for your employees’ health — and your business’s bottom line. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s an alternative to hustle culture. 

    Let’s dive into what hustle culture is, how it impacts the workplace, and how to avoid hustle culture for yourself and your employees.  

    What is hustle culture? 

    First, let's understand what we mean by hustle culture.

    This concept is particularly pervasive among entrepreneurs, who are constantly urged by motivational speakers to “hustle harder.” After all, who needs free time when you’re building a successful business? 

    Hustle culture is also common among full-time employees, especially with younger generations. 

    Whether they’re working part-time gigs, starting side hustles, or putting in overtime, work has become an all-consuming priority for many.

    Where did hustle culture come from and is it toxic?

    In recent years, celebrities, influencers, and company leaders have glamorized a version of hard work that in reality, looks a lot like workaholism.  

    This phenomenon has gained videos with the hashtag “#sidehustles” over 1.8 billion views on TikTok. It’s led to endless “rise and grind” social media posts and a wave of music and television celebrating the hustlers who sacrifice everything to “make it.” 

    Hustle culture might be going viral, but it’s nothing new. From a young age, students are expected to prioritize their grades over their social life. Then when they get jobs, leaders tend to reward employees who stay late and come in early. 

    All of this can be traced back to the idea of “the American dream.” From childhood, we’re told that if we work hard, we can become rich and successful. 

    Some people do achieve a form of happiness from their efforts. But more often, the American dream plus hustle culture creates a toxic cycle. It tells us that even as we work harder and harder, we can always have more, do more, and be more. This means that the goalposts will keep moving no matter how much we achieve.

    Our modern understanding of hustle culture is also problematic because it puts impossible expectations on people of color. Historically, the concept of “rise and grind” has been a matter of survival for marginalized communities — not an opportunity to build wealth. 

    The reality of systemic oppression means that in many cases, people of color can’t just “work harder” in order to reach success. That’s because wide racial disparities in wealth, opportunity, and earnings continue to exist. If this is the case, we have to ask, how can persistent hustle be empowering? 

    The truth is that this cycle of hard work and moving goalposts leads to burnout and exhaustion. It asks us to put our well-being aside so that we can achieve a very narrow definition of success. If we want to want to be happier at work and in life, we have to leave the toxic hustle culture behind. 

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    How hustle culture shows up in the workplace

    Your company’s work culture plays a key role in employee satisfaction, engagement, and productivity. But hustle culture can have a negative impact on all three of these factors.

    So how do you know if “hustle harder” has become the norm in your workplace? Here are a few major signs: 

    • Employees are praised or rewarded for working long hours 

    • People send emails and Slack messages at all hours, including weekends

    • Performative acts of “hustle” are common, including bragging about not getting enough sleep, skipping meals to work, and other unhealthy habits 

    • Employees take pride in not using PTO days (or employees are encouraged to not take PTO, even if unlimited PTO exists) 

    • It seems like work is the most important thing to everyone — and having a personal life isn’t normal

    • When someone asks for help, they’re told to “find a creative solution,” instead of receiving additional resources and support 

    If any of these sound familiar, you might be dealing with a serious case of hustle culture. While it might seem like you simply have a team of hard workers, the truth is that hustle culture is not sustainable. 

    Why? Burnt-out employees who don’t receive support are highly likely to quit — and while they are at the company, they are far less productive than employees with a healthy work-life balance

    hustle-culture-man-working-late-on-laptop

    How hustle culture impacts mental health

    Hustle culture might look glamorous, but it places immense pressure on everyone involved — and recent economic changes like inflation have only magnified that pressure. 

    According to an April 2022 survey, over 40% of Americans report that money is having a negative impact on their mental health. Many believe that working more is the answer to that stress — in fact, today, one in three Americans report having a side hustle

    The problem? Hustle culture can end up causing you more stress than you had to begin with. Here are four ways that hustle culture impacts mental health: 

    1. Guilt 

    Take a moment to check in with yourself. Do you feel a twinge of guilt when you think of taking a day off? Is it hard to relax when you have extra free time? That’s because guilt is one of the main characteristics of hustle culture. 

    For example, in one survey of remote workers, remote employees were found to be exceptionally productive. Yet, 62% of the workers were afraid of being seen as lazy. They also felt guilty about working from home. 

    Even though they had a better work-life balance and were more productive, the pressure of hustle culture made it difficult for these employees to relax. 

    2. Anxiety 

    A recent Gallup poll showed that 44% of employees experienced anxiety, anger, and/or sadness a lot during the previous day. And it makes sense: if you go to work every day knowing that your boss expects you to “hustle harder,” that’s a clear recipe for anxiety. 

    Whether you’re dealing with personal problems or simply didn’t get enough sleep last night, the pressure to perform can feel overwhelming. Combine hustle culture with mental health stigma at work, and it can become difficult for employees to get the support they need.

    3. Toxic positivity 

    Hustle culture naturally leads to toxic positivity. If you’re always working, it might feel like there’s no time for negative emotions. But whether it’s a frustrating client, burnt coffee, or traffic on the way to the office, we all need to complain sometimes. 

    In fact, studies show that expressing and accepting negative feelings is crucial for mental health. So if you feel the pressure to say, “it’s fine,” take a moment to get in touch with your feelings and find a way to process them — even if it’s after hours. 

    hustle-culture-woman-sipping-coffee-late-at-work

    4. Apathy 

    Hustle culture comes full circle with apathy. This is because when people are encouraged to suppress their feelings, maintain long work hours, and never take time off, burnout will lead them to stop caring. 

    Apathy looks like an inability to focus on your work, losing interest in things you once enjoyed about your job, and an overall sense of numbness. You may also realize that you’re not sure what you were working towards all along.

    Especially now, we’re seeing a rise in disengagement among employees. In a time where engaging employees is more important than ever, apathy is a sentiment to keep a close eye on. 

    Hustle culture and physical health

    Hustle culture has serious implications for mental health, but it doesn’t stop there. Over time, too much work and intense stress can affect your body

    Here are just a few ways hustle culture can impact your physical health: 

    Clearly, hustle culture can damage your health if it’s taken too far. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way — you can make a change. 

    5 ways to avoid hustle culture

    Hustle culture is intense, but it’s popular for a reason. Most of us want to believe we have control over our own success. And overworking is a great way to feel in control — until your well-being starts to suffer.

    If you’re ready to leave the hustle behind, here are 5 ways to avoid hustle culture and start reprioritizing self-care. 

    1. Set boundaries 

    Boundaries can be scary. Chances are, your boss, family, and friends won’t like it when you start saying “no” more often. However, try to remember that protecting your time will make you a better friend and employee in the long run. 

    You can start by getting clear on what’s draining your energy. What are you currently doing that’s not in your job description? Are you spending all your time helping your coworkers, instead of doing your own work? Are you staying late due to perfectionism, or because you actually have to?  

    2. Focus on your priorities 

    The Pareto Principle says that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. So ask yourself, is everything on your to-do list really necessary? Most likely, you know which tasks will have the biggest impact on your work. Focus your energy on those, and let the rest take a back seat.  

    3. Take intentional rest 

    What’s scheduled usually gets accomplished. Put time to rest on your calendar, and treat it as if it was a meeting with your boss. You wouldn’t repeatedly reschedule that, right? Remember: rest is a long-term strategy for success. Burnout won’t get you anywhere. 

    4. Define your own version of success 

    Hustle culture promotes its own version of success, and it’s usually very materialistic. While that’s fine, it’s not everyone’s dream to own a mansion or drive a sports car. 

    Think about what’s important to you: do you really want to work 60 hours every week? Or would you rather make memories with your friends and family?

    5. Ask for help

    Sometimes hustle culture can seem inescapable. If you feel stuck, it might be time to seek help from a coach or therapist. They’ll be able to help you make a plan that will put your well-being first. 

    You might also need to get some tasks off your plate. Can you ask your boss to add someone to the team? Is there software that can automate some of your repetitive tasks? Hustle culture overemphasizes self-reliance, but real success requires you to learn how to ask for help. 

    hustle-culture-no-glory-in-grind

    How to help employees recover from hustle culture burnout

    Focusing on well-being is a great strategy for improving work performance. That’s because when burnout is reduced and work-life balance is improved, employees come to work with more energy. As a result, they’ll be more engaged, productive, and focused. 

    So how can you help your employees recover from hustle culture burnout? Here are a few tips.  

    • Encourage employees to take time off, and make a minimum number of days mandatory if possible 

    • Ask your team what they need and be prepared to take action, whether it’s through hiring, redistributing workloads, or something else

    • Offer flexibility so that employees can work remotely or on an adjusted schedule 

    • Communicate your standards clearly, so employees know that they aren’t expected to work overtime regularly 

    • Offer wellness benefits that show the company cares about health, such as subsidized gym memberships, a membership to a meditation app, complimentary healthy meals, etc. 

    • Create a supportive work environment that doesn’t reward people for sacrificing their health for the company 

    The most important thing is to set clear expectations for employees so that they know they can succeed without hustle culture. And remember: if you help them thrive, ultimately, employees will help the company thrive. 

    Saying goodbye to hustle culture 

    No matter what your goals are, you don’t have to give in to hustle culture. By prioritizing self-care and well-being, you can sustainably reach whatever success looks like for you. 

    Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. Sometimes a coach, therapist, or even a part-time assistant can be just what you need to overcome burnout and transform your life.

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    Published November 7, 2022

    Madeline Miles

    Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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