The term ‘hustle’ has become a part of the working lexicon, thanks to its high profile champions – the workaholic CEOs (usually from the tech industry) who glamourise the “always-on” lifestyle. Being a subscriber to hustle theory means that your desire for success at work overrides everything else: your weekends, family time, vacations, hobbies, even your own health and wellbeing. However, the risks and dangers of hustle culture in terms of employee wellbeing are only partially understood. Here’s a simple guide to understanding and managing the workplace impact of hustle culture in 2022.

Why hustle culture can be toxic to health and work

Hustle culture became a reality during the pandemic. Working from home brought the walls between work and life crashing down, as endless work took overnights and weekends. Even if you want to end sooner, something or the other always seems to keep coming up and interrupt your ‘me-time’. Aidan Harper, creator of the ‘4 Day Week’ campaign says, “(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.”

Working long hours is known to affect productivity and creativity. Overwork also has consequences on our life spans. In 2016, almost 750,000 deaths were attributable to overworking worldwide. The Japanese even have a word for people dying because of excessive workload – karoshi. Hustle culture is so prevalent in the Japanese work context that the language has developed a new word for it.

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Despite these risks, hustle culture is still justified on the pretext of offering the possibility of a big future payoff for hard work today. The future payoff may be more a chimera than a real possibility, but that doesn’t stop either the employees from falling prey to it or the employers from victimising their employees.

Hustle culture in India and other emerging economies also exploits the financial and career insecurities of workers. Employers often overwork employees and even make them feel guilty if they seek work-life balance of any kind. An EdTech company has consistently been in the news for its toxic culture, but there are hundreds of other companies which embrace hustle culture with impunity. Refrains of ‘Taking half a day off, are you?’ when a person leaves the office at 6 pm are common enough to have become clichéd now.

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The body’s response to overwork

Hustle culture causes extreme levels of stress to workers, leaders and founders. Although all stress is not bad – some of it is actually desirable for efficient functioning –  sustained stress over time starts affecting the brain. Hustle culture can end up putting you into fight-or-flight mode, leading to the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Excessive stress weakens the immune system and causes anxiety, which may lead to anxiety disorders, apart from other mental health conditions. To neutralise cortisol, the body needs to reach a state of rest. But hustle culture prevents that from happening - it abhors a state of rest, leading to possible burnout, and sometimes even self-harm.

Whether you’re trying to prevent burnout in your team or are grappling with it yourself, here are some ways and tips to deal with hustle culture.

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ACKNOWLEDGE: The first and most important step is to recognise that you are in the cycle of hustle culture. Acknowledgment will come with awareness and insight. If you find yourself getting drained and feeling unfulfilled, do not be in denial about the possibility of hustle culture ruling your workday.

SET APPROPRIATE GOALS: Set achievable goals for yourself. Do not set goals with unrealistic targets or timelines that do not allow you any room to manoeuvre and push you over the edge. The hustle culture cycle expects you to achieve the unachievable every day and that is unsustainable. Make a to-do list of your most important goals and work to achieve them.

SET APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES: Sometimes you may be given more work to do because you do not say ‘no’ to more work. As the cheeky aphorism goes, the reward for good work is more work. When you learn to set boundaries, you may realise that you do not necessarily need to work yourself to burnout and you may be able to break out of the cycle.

FOCUS ON WORK-LIFE BALANCE: Depending upon whom you ask, there are several areas that need to be fulfilled for a happy life, like work, money (different from work), mental health, physical health, education, family, education, philanthropy, and so on. Work is just one of the areas that need focus and not the only area. Recognising this and aligning it with your major life goals may help break the cycle if you find your efforts skewed more towards work and work alone.

BREATHE: By this, I mean take a break. Switch off your cell phone, and do not check your email. No matter how difficult it sounds. It is truly unfortunate if switching off the phone and not checking emails does sound difficult to you.

TAKE ACTION: These tips only skim the surface and putting these tips into practice may not be easy, and may also make you feel that they won’t work. But they do. If you take action. So, TAKE ACTION. Take small steps, if needed. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

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Learning how to break out of the hustle culture cycle is a process and you will not succeed in one day. But with understanding and action, you can. And will.