how hustle culture is slowly, and very literally, killing you
Today’s office and gig culture are glorifying workaholism and a non-stop “hustle ‘till you make it, sleep when you’re dead” attitude. It’s not just socially toxic. It’s damaging to your health and psyche.
Perhaps one of the most destructive trends to take off in the last decade is hustle culture, which journalist Erin Griffith very astutely described as the late stage capitalist version of “Soviet-era propaganda which promoted impossible-seeming feats of worker productivity to motivate the labor force.” It’s praised by executives who believe that every waking moment of your life needs to rotate around work or you’ll be an abject failure, it generates a lot of money, and it’s joining the other forces of misery to undermine nearly three out of four workers. As if stagnant wages and economic insecurity weren’t bad enough, people are now being asked to work themselves into an early grave and told that work isn’t a way to achieve a goal, it is the goal.
And it’s even more infuriating when you know that not only are many of those jobs due for an AI upgrade, but that long hours in the office actually sabotage the workers’ health and their overall performance as they compete in a rat race into a wall of humming cloud servers. The only thing they’re killing after a certain point every day is themselves, according to many years of scientific research into how chronic stress affects us, and it’s hard to call a job that requires you to be plugged in, ready to answer texts, emails, and join impromptu meetings more or less around the clock, and tells you that your exhaustion is a badge of honor to wear proudly, anything but stressful.
what does long term stress do to us?
Let’s talk about what workaholism does to the body for just a few minutes. Constant stress of meetings, deadlines, reports, memos, and code to check in, coupled with productivity-killing, disease-riddled open offices, release an abnormal amount of cortisol, a stress hormone which can build up in your system, triggering rapid weight gain — which probably isn’t helped by the average white collar worker’s diet in workplaces that routinely provide food to make sure employees spend more time at the office — as well as high blood pressure, fatigue, and depression. This is what we colloquially call burnout and, unlike what so many youth-bashing publications will tell you, it can affect anyone who’s overwhelmed with work. But wait, there’s more, in the immortal words of the late Billy Mays.
Long term stress and overwork also undermine your immune system, make your stomach more acidic, alter your insulin production, allow cholesterol buildup in your arteries, causing ulcers, and heart disease when combined with a sedentary schedule and bad diet, and increasing your risk of diabetes, as well as numerous viral infections. Do you work in an open office? You’re now not only exposed to more disease, you’re more likely to get sick as your body can’t fight it while it’s incubating, and stay sick for longer as the fight against the virions drags on. That introductory quip about working yourself into an early grave wasn’t an exaggeration, there for the sake of poetic license and a dramatic segue. It was a warning.
so, how much should we be working?
Consider that the eight hour workday, now extended with smartphones and ubiquitous internet connections, is a relic of factory work where more hours on the floor meant more widgets made and shipped to paying customers. Many of today’s managers and executives run companies very much along the same lines, having gotten their training in the days of factory bullpens or mentored by someone who did. But creative work simply doesn’t happen like that and requires periods of unstructured time to focus on a problem and mull it over. Keep pushing beyond a certain point and you end up with something you’ll have to fix when you come back a little less tired and notice all the mistakes and shortcuts taken to keep cramming more work into your day.
In fact, there’s some research and historical evidence that four hours of intense, creative work per day are optimal before you start hitting the point of diminishing returns. Of course this isn’t to say that our work days should be limited to four hours, but that between the daily minutia, we’ll probably manage around four hours of actual productive creativity on average. There will also be exceptions and emergencies, but overall, there’s no reason why workers whose output isn’t easily and directly measured by how many physical artifacts they produced have to spend a fixed number of hours in the office, much less be goaded into spending more until they’re burnt out and miserable while the quality of their deliverables suffers in the process and they end up spending more time fixing problems than actually making something new.
what do we do about hustle culture?
Let’s be honest and call out why hustle culture exists. It exists thanks to the cultural belief of many that work in and of itself is noble and the more you work, you better person you are by extension, and because it’s profitable for employers to get more and more out of workers without necessarily paying them for the extra hours, or having limits on when they can make them do “just one more thing really quickly.” Motivating people to submit their lives to the needs of their employers or clients with art deco #ThankGodItsMonday posters, and using terms like “self-starter” and “goes above and beyond” in job descriptions, isn’t something they’re going to stop doing if people are willing to go along with the philosophy.
We won’t be able to combat it until we start asking tough questions about why work should be the goal, especially when this work isn’t exactly saving lives or creating futures, just adding a little more wealth for owners. Yes, we want doctors and engineers to work hard. But do the people who make deals with social media influencers to hawk ads for what could be the next Fyre Festival really need to spend ten hours a day in the office, “hustling and grinding?” Should people worship the word of Gary Vee and struggle 24/7 to launch a business nobody wants off the ground? What’s the end game? What do we want out of work? Do we just want to keep busy or do we actually want to accomplish something, and if so, what? These are not rhetorical questions. They need real answers from real people. And soon.