Today's work environment is all about the grind of staying productive to prove your worth in the workplace. Leaders have been brainwashed on the value of working long hours and juggling multiple projects to climb the corporate ladder. Elon Musk has even championed this approach, boasting that he works over 100 hours weekly. This mindset is known as hustle culture, and it has become a topic of concern due to its toxic effects on individuals and their corporate environment.
Hustle culture is the extreme focus on productivity, long work hours, and professional gains with little regard for rest ethic, work-life balance, or self-care. Hustle culture promotes hard work, strong work ethic, and extreme commitment as characteristics for career success. While this intense focus on productivity and professional endeavors does yield short-term gains, the long-term implications of this toxic ideology can be catastrophic, leading to burnout, mental exhaustion, and health issues.
The Rise of Hustle Culture
Hustle culture gained popularity, partly due to social influencers, entrepreneurs, and celebrities promoting working beyond the traditional 40-hour workweek as a means of getting ahead. Employee evaluation systems such as stacked ranking also play a role in encouraging individuals to work harder and longer than their counterparts to be competitive. Along with social mantras like "hard work pays" and "give it all you've got," these social constructs set unrealistic expectations that have become detractors in the workplace.
Being a workaholic became commonplace during the Industrial Revolution when factory workers commonly worked 14-16 hours per day, six days a week. The rise of labor unions helped shape the modern eight-hour workday, five days per week schedule that most Americans follow today. However, employees that follow this "normal" workday are seen as less ambitious, career-minded, or productive compared to their counterparts that work long hours and take on additional responsibilities in the workplace.
In 2018, Elon Musk posted a comment on Twitter stating, "Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week." In 2022, he reinforced this statement while meeting with the staff of his newly acquired company, Twitter, by informing them to commit to working "long hours at high intensity" or leave the company. The billionaire is known for working long hours, often sleeping at the office. His commitment, drive, and forward-thinking have propelled him to wealth and worldwide recognition; however, his success represents the exception, not the norm.
A New “Normal”
Societal changes, such as workforce demographics, and social movements, such as The Great Resignation and quiet quitting, have also reshaped the work environment as many companies struggle to fill vacant positions. In March 2022, CNBC reported more than 11 million job openings in the US; by February 2023, the number of job openings had shrunk to 9.93 million. Today, most healthcare or fast food industries need help to fill open positions. This talent shortage comes as many Americans balk at the thought of working exhausting hours in exchange for mediocre wages.
Hustle culture has also taken a toll on vital industries such as healthcare. According to the blog site deel.com, 20% of healthcare workers quit their job from the start of the coronavirus to November 2021. In medical imaging, many technologists have left the security of the traditional hospital career to pursue the higher-paying role of travel or contract assignments. These contract positions are less strenuous, require little commitment to one organization, and provide better wages and a continuous work environment change. A recent study in The Harvard Gazette highlighted that more than half of healthcare workers were stressed, overworked, and ready to leave the job due to burnout exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The allure of hustle culture has lost its luster as many Americans begin to focus on mental resilience and family rather than toxic productivity. Employees have started to demand more paid time off and flexible work hours than pay raises. A 2017 article in Harvard Business Review highlighted the results of a survey by Fractl that found employees valued benefits such as health insurance, flexible hours, paid vacation time, and remote work options more than higher pay. These statistics represent a growing trend toward self-care and mental well-being rather than focusing on the constant grind of hustle culture.
Detoxing from Hustle Culture
Hustle culture promotes rivalry in the workplace and encourages unhealthy work habits that can be hard to break. Breaking away from the mentality of hustle culture requires an intentional effort to shift from the competitive workaholic mindset to a more purposeful work effort. Here's how you can detox from the hustle culture mentality:
1. Set healthy boundaries. Setting healthy boundaries in the workplace begins with identifying your why. Determine what your priorities are and what you are willing to accommodate. For instance, if the goal is to spend more time doing things you like, then setting a reasonable time for working should be a priority. Identify which tasks are urgent and which can be delegated, allowing you to prioritize your assignments, invest in the professional development of team members, create a clear schedule, and establish a new routine incorporating relaxing activities.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What are your hobbies/interests?
- How much time do you want to spend weekly on your hobbies/interests?
2. Define what success means to you. Success means something different to each individual. For some, success is tied to monetary gain, while others view success as having the time to dedicate to family and relaxation. Detoxing from hustle culture requires individuals to define success and chart a course for success. Keep in mind that success is not a race or external competition. Create SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) goals that guide you toward your success. Seek out mentors or coaches that have achieved success in the area you are pursuing. Communicate with your mentor regularly and be active in the mentoring relationship. Measure your success based on personal metrics rather than comparing your outcome to others. Also, enjoy the journey to success. Celebrate milestones and engage with mentors for advice on meeting your goals.
Questions to ask yourself: - What needs to be done now? - What can you delegate? - What are realistic work hours based on your job scope and personal priorities?
3. Be intentional about your rest ethic. Having a solid work ethic is admirable. You should also have an equally strong rest ethic. Rest ethic is the dedication to decompressing from the stressors of the work environment. Rest is essential to mental and physical well-being. It rejuvenates and builds resilience by providing adequate time to unplug from the strain of daily responsibilities, especially work. Dedicate time throughout the workday to practice your rest ethic. Some ideas for unplugging during the workday include meditation, deep breathing exercises, and walking during lunch. If your workday or work environment is hectic and fast-paced, try carving out 3-5 minutes every hour to practice a different technique, or use the last 10 minutes of your lunch break to step outside for some natural sunlight.
Questions to ask yourself: - What motivates you to work? - What is your career goal? - Where do you see yourself in the next 3-5 years?
4. Collaborate vs. compete. Teamwork is a competitive advantage for organizations. It increases cohesion in the workplace and promotes creativity and resource sharing. Leaders can reduce employee stress and strain on resources by building cross-functional teams and encouraging coworkers to collaborate intra-departmentally and interdepartmentally. Collaboration can result in process improvements, employee engagement, retention, and staff cross-training.
It is important to note that competition can be beneficial to the workplace. Healthy competition is characterized by individuals or teams working toward organizational goals rather than self-interests and competitors working toward a win-win outcome rather than a "winner takes all" mentality. Collaboration brings together different personalities, experiences, skills, and work ethic, which enrich team members' professional development, diversity awareness, and adaptability.
Questions to ask yourself: - Can you put off the task til a later time or date? - When does the task need to be completed? - How does delaying the task impact others in the workplace? - Is there someone else qualified to complete the task?
5. Just say no. Saying no can be difficult, especially for hard-working go-getters being asked to take on more from their boss. Saying no is not a sign of weakness but a sign of self-awareness and strength. Time management and emotional intelligence are enhanced by controlling your workday. Improving time management is not an opportunity to find ways to take on more work. Instead, it is a chance to eliminate unnecessary work and stress by creating a structured workday with activities that bring self-fulfillment. Be aware of your workload, limitations, and obligations so you do not overcommit yourself.
Be polite and straightforward when declining work. Saying no is not fatal. Being deliberate and tactful in your approach ensures that you are understood rather than shunned. For instance, if you cannot take on additional tasks due to competing priorities, you could respond, "Unfortunately, I have too much on my plate at this time," or "Now is not a good time for me." Explain your response and provide a solution or alternative to assist the requestor in completing the task. End positively and, most importantly, follow up to determine if the matter was resolved.
Questions to ask yourself: - What projects or programs can you collaborate with peers on? - What skills and resources do you have that can benefit a peer?
Hustle culture can be deceiving because of the short-term gains from toiling long work hours. Detoxing from hustle culture is not an escape from a solid work ethic or being responsible. It means balancing work and rest to avoid overtaking the other. Instead of going from one goal to the next or constantly striving for success, take a moment to reflect on your accomplishments and appreciate your journey.
Normalize rest, family time, relaxation, and unplugging from work in the same manner that after-hours work calls, taking work home, and doing more with less have become a regular part of corporate life. Likewise, encouraging coworkers to take breaks and practice mindfulness contributes to mental resilience. Be sure to detox from hustle culture before experiencing burnout or fatigue. Take the time to practice stress management and prevention without feeling guilty. You owe it to yourself to have a rest ethic that is just as strong as your work ethic.
Dr. Vaughn Eason, DBA
CEO of McKenzie • Ewing, LLC – a leadership development and coaching company. He is also a Navy veteran and father of three.
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