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On Hustle Culture and Burn-Out

In the last decade, Millennials went from being called the side-hustle generation to the burnout generation. This isn’t a coincidence. Hustle Culture arguably started from the technology industry at the beginning of the 2000’s from the Googles and Facebooks of the world. Over time, it became normal to have multiple side hustle projects and work around the clock. It doesn’t help that people like Elon Musk have been saying: “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” Here’s a question: since when did we all have to take it upon ourselves to “change the world”? And what does that even mean?

“Do you think Hustle Culture is good or bad? If so, why?”

My readers largely believed that hustle culture is net-net bad for them and their teams, but can be good in short spurts when things need to get done.

When it’s good: it rallies the team behind something bigger than themselves, it can be motivating during important moments, and it can help people get shit done.

When it’s bad: when the adrenaline wears off people are left exhausted, it’s not motivating in the long-term, it’s unrealistic, it’s a “push” method that forces outcomes and decreases collaboration, it doesn’t allow employees to have proper boundaries with work, it ruins people’s self-care.

The New York Times wrote at length about the question for this generation: “Why are young people pretending to love work?”

In it, the writer posits: “Welcome to hustle culture. It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor and — once you notice it — impossible to escape.” Ultimately, the article ends with a choice: “ultimately, workers must decide if they admire or rejection this level of devotion.” It’s a good reminder that Hustle is a choice. As leaders, our choices matter. How can we start choosing to reduce the pressure to Hustle for our teams, especially during this pandemic?

“How do you experience Hustle Culture at work?

From my readers: “Tons of firedrills. Too much in the “Urgent vs Important” bucket. Too many projects without clear plans / priorities / owners. Exhaustion. Sharp elbows. Stepping on each other to get a promotion. Being always-on. Power plays. Getting ahead. Not knowing who to trust.”

My build to this would be: burn-out. Psychologists are reporting a rise in “pandemic burnout” as the COVID-19 virus stays around longer than expected. Kids, teens, and adults are all experiencing a looming mental health crisis. This moment gives us urgency. We have to pay attention to this more than we ever have before.

“How does this experience feel for you in your body and in your mental health?”

The shared experience from my audience is clear: Stress, Tense Body, Unhealthy, Constant, Lose Sight of What’s Really Important and What Makes You Happy, Frustrating.

To quote one reader: “You get more adrenaline from it – as there is a constant deadline. However, it puts you in a constant alert/stress to deliver mode –> lowers your TOMO (Total motivation) and creativity.”

Bottom line: Employee health gets compromised in the midst of Hustle Culture. Rather than try to get finite results, companies that want to have long-term productivity and results should take employee health and wellness seriously. Invest in your people’s holistic health in ways that they need you to. Which brings me to the last question I asked my readers…

“What are some possible ways to create improvement in this experience individually and at companies?”

  • Prioritize projects with manageable deadlines for long-term impact
  • Clearly articulate ownership and processes to accomplish goals
  • Break vision into bite-sized pieces for tangible progress
  • Role model behavior at the top to react less and lead with empathy
  • Remove tendency to hit artificial milestones for leadership schedules
  • Release pressure for your teams after a tough period with proper celebration and time off
  • Don’t promote hustlers who perpetuate the toxic culture and work around the clock. For instance, Microsoft now includes collaboration and strong partnership as a key part of getting a good review
  • Reward and promote more quiet steady workers who drive results
  • Invest in creating psychological safety for employees
  • Prioritize employee mental health and support them in ways they need (child care, work office equipment, access to services, etc)
  • Manage meetings and zoom fatigue ruthlessly to give time back whenever possible
  • Create spaces to connect and share best practices among teams

There are many ways companies and leaders can support their teams during this time. The important part is to put your money where your mouth is and invest in these critical areas. If we all approach the work week with the intent of reducing the pressure to Hustle and creating more space for rest and connection, we will be playing an important role in moving past the “burnout generation” into something more aspirational: “the Healthy generation” (or something cooler).

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