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Toxicity of Hustle Culture: Are We Are Lying To Ourselves?
The grind doesn’t stop, even after you get home.
The mantras of hustle culture follow us from as early as our teen years, up until adulthood and beyond. Commonly characterized as a motivating reminder that hard work leads to greatness, hustle culture– in actuality– is a false pretense that widely promotes excessive workaholism.
Whether it’s used in a corporate or academic setting, hustle culture likens the possibility of burnout and encourages a lifestyle that is undeniably unsustainable. Not only does it push individuals to grind at a rate that is damaging to their mental health, but it also fosters an inherent nature of hyper-competitiveness among friends, peers, and employees: all of whom seek to outperform one another.
Hustle culture glamorizes the cycle of workaholism and exhaustion “in order to achieve the capitalist goal of wealth and success” (Youthtopia). In a society that honors sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion as badges of “strength,” individuals are continuously encouraged to forgo their health and personal relationships in order to flaunt these badges publically.
“[Hustle culture] creates the assumption that the only value we have as human beings is our productivity capability — our ability to work, rather than our humanity,” remarked Aidan Harper, creator of the European workweek-shrinkage campaign, to the NY Times. While career achievement necessitates hard work and dedication, hustle culture teaches us that success and mental health cannot peaceably coexist. This phrase is promoted across the media– driving followers to believe that as long as they put in the hours, no matter how grueling those hours are, they have the opportunity to pursue any ambition in their wake. But at what cost is this sacrifice?
It’s time we reevaluate just how much emphasis we put into this herd mentality.
The Origins of Hustle Culture
Where does the glorified perception of workaholism derive from?
Researchers attribute society’s obsession to hustle culture with FOMO, or the fear of missing out. “Being always on can create a constant sense of anxiety and like there is always something we should be doing,” explains Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit. “America is, in many senses, a land of opportunity. There are so many opportunities out there, it’s easy to feel that at any moment, you’re missing out on capitalizing on an opportunity and therefore falling behind your competitors/peers,” Boyes concludes (Thrive).
Immigrants who flooded to America in the late 19th century seeking economic freedom and prosperity were cast into jobs that were reserved for the bottom rungs of society. In order to rise up the socioeconomic ranks and earn their spot in the white-collar workforce, immigrants oftentimes were forced to work twice as hard in order to level their native-born white counterparts. This historic phenomenon has contributed to the widespread belief that despite systemic discrimination and inequity prevalent across this nation, hard work and perseverance will provide any individual– no matter their origin– with the opportunity to achieve the “American Dream.”
Thus, hustle culture reminds Americans that regardless of how many hours of work they’re putting in, their competitors are always working harder. As a result, they cannot afford to fall behind.
Modern-day corporate culture only perpetuates this ideology. Not only does work lead to inherent competitiveness amongst individuals, but it also has become increasingly difficult to escape. With technology facilitating the rapid communication of employees all across the globe, corporate duties travel with individuals even after they leave the office. Workaholism is fostered by the inability to distinguish between work life and personal life.
To make matters worse, individuals are influenced by the slogans plastered across their office workspaces, subway doors, and their own Twitter feeds. For example, Elon Musk– CEO of Tesla, certified centi-billionaire, and one of the key proponents of hustle culture– has influenced thousands of his followers to believe that if they work hard enough, they can achieve the same level of prosperity that he has. Musk tweeted in November that despite there being easier places to work at than Tesla, “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” A “safe” estimate, according to Musk, is “about 80 sustained, peaking about 100 at times. Pain level increases exponentially above 80” (NY Times).
In the highly cutthroat (and inescapable) industry we’re in, Musk’s claims are both misleading and unwarranted to forecast onto millions of his followers.
The Biggest Myth of All: Productivity
Greed is good. Rise and grind. Go hard or go home.
Society advocates for hustle culture mantras because we believe that the more we grind– the more relentless work ethic we dedicate towards our goals– the greater our productivity levels will be. Whether productivity is used as a badge of self-esteem or a mechanism to compare tangible performance levels, society inherently equates productivity with success.
This is one of the most common pitfalls: leading to the perpetuation of hustle culture.
To start off, productivity is subjective. What one believes to be productive can be viewed as fruitless to another individual. To claim productivity– as a perceived universal concept– is the key to being successful hereby ignores the diversity in perspective of the concept. Encouraging individuals to be greedy, to continue grinding, to work as much as they can rather than as best as they can, only sets them up for poor-quality performance.
Research serves to validate these findings. According to a report conducted by Stanford Professor, John H. Pencavel, the correlation between long working hours and high yield output is unsupported. In fact, the report uncovered that after a 50-hour workweek, employee productivity significantly declines, and it continues to do so with each additional hour. Working harder is clearly not working smarter.
“Employees at work for a long time may experience fatigue or stress that not only reduces his or her productivity but also increases the probability of errors, accidents, and sickness that impose costs on the employer,” the report explains. “The point at which fatigue sets in and the nature of the link between working hours and work effort or fatigue is likely to vary across types of work and across workers” (Forbes).
Thus, hustle culture is shockingly deceiving. While individuals can (statistically) achieve a higher yield-output by being strategic about their respective work periods, society deludes us into believing that we have to maximize every minute of our days. Very few people can function effectively at extreme levels of work demand. Just because Elon Musk can, doesn’t mean it should be promoted as a universal ideal.
How Hustle Culture Deteriotes Mental Health
Productivity is only one portion of the equation, but mental health is a whole separate conversation.
As Professor John H. Pencavel’s study suggested, the body’s response to high levels of stress and fatigue has dire consequences to its physical health. The first reason, of course, stems from lack of sleep. Not only does sleep “enrich a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices” (Why We Sleep), which allows us to perform at our optimal performance, but it’s also a key regulator in our emotional health. When individuals deprive their body of adequate hours of consistent nightly sleep, they’re statistically more prone to suffer from emotional fluctuation: particularly depression, anxiety, and anger outbursts.
Moreover, hustle culture also promotes a lifestyle that regularly precipitates burnout: a state of utter mental and physical exhaustion triggered by chronic hyper-exertion. A recent study conducted on 1500 US employees to assess the levels of burnout across the United States found that over 50 percent of survey respondents are experiencing burnout this year, a significant leap of almost 10 percent compared to survey respondents in 2020. With burnout rates continuing to rise, it’s time we reevaluate the cultural expectations– the work mantras– that lead to its exacerbation.
Notably, even for individuals who manage to sustain their lifestyles and avoid severe symptoms of mental health illness and burnout, hustle culture can still often evoke the hamster on the wheel syndrome, the creeping notions that life has no real purpose, that constant fatigue is a regularity, that productivity trumps all else.
Ambition is important, but as many fail to recognize, so is mental health.
Can Hard Work And Personal Health Coexist?
Of course it can, but not within the bounds of hustle culture.
Rather than encouraging individuals to chase relentless corporate success at whatever the costs, society should preach the message that hard work is the key to accomplishing one’s greatest ambitions, but it is just one of the many factors that individuals must be attentive to in order to be “successful.”
Regardless of the messages we see plastered across our daily commute to work or late-night scrolls on social media, the ability to recognize the toxicity of hustle culture and make an active decision to refrain from it will unleash unforeseen benefits: not just to productivity, but also to mental health. Stepping back, finding balance, working hard, sleeping more, accomplishing goals, prioritizing relationships; they’re all important, and equal, aspects of the life fulfillment equation.