Hustle Culture and Shame

The struggle to sustain the unsustainable.

Written by Meg Walters

Hustle Culture and Shame

01 Hustle culture has started to become the new norm. Many employees are working double the amount of hours with 24/7 availability, constantly comparing themselves to others.

02 The anxiety of keeping up means risking burnout and illness. Regardless, it can be hard to separate yourself from being online.

03 Reevaluating goals and prioritizing time off can help to alleviate the stressors of work, and remind you that there's more to life than constantly hustling.

There’s a fine line between being dedicated to your job and being controlled by it.

Modern work culture has forced more and more people to define themselves by their careers. Hashtags like #hustlelikealion, #girlboss, #mondaymotivation, and #getthatbread along with newsletters like “The Hustle” exemplify the trend. In the world of hustle culture, working hard is no longer a part of a balanced life — it is a lifestyle. 

As Forbes explains, the romanticizing of “hustling” is largely due to a “wave of motivational social media influencers" and the explosion of the freelance market. Psychology Today notes that the overworked hustler has become the new image of urbane sophistication and glamour. 

The tech industry is a key player in the emergence of this trend. Tesla founder Elon Musk is something of a figurehead in the world of hustling. Musk once famously tweeted, “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” His recommendation? Something between 80 to 100 hours of work a week. 

People like Musk seem to love lording their superhuman ability to work from dawn till dusk seven days a week over mediocre nine-to-fivers. In fact, hustle culture thrives on comparison and competition. Because those who subscribe to it tend to exude an air of superiority for their long hours and monk-like devotion to the desk, more and more people find themselves feeling ashamed of their output, even when working harder and longer than the standard 40 hours a week.

Hustle culture thrives on comparison and competition.

In fact, the 2020 pandemic has only made matters worse. A study by FlexJobs and Mental Health America (MHA) found that 37% of people are working longer hours and 75% claim that work-related stress is affecting their mental health. 

Working for 10, 15 or even 20 hours a day means sacrificing sleep for a 4 a.m. workout, shooting off a brand-building tweet during a stolen 5 minute break, and wolfing down meals on-the-go. So why do it?

As occupational therapist Suzanne Guest says, different types of people are susceptible to hustle culture. Sometimes, it's for economic need. “Some people take second jobs or ‘side hustles’ as their wages are not enough to pay rent and bills, and so they take some gig work,” she says.

However, others find themselves over working due to the shame that comes from, well, not doing so. “People can feel pressured to keep up and ashamed that they are not earning as much as they perceive others earn,” she says. 

As copywriter and marketer Francesca Baker explains, the pressure to overwork is especially prevalent in the entrepreneurial community. “To build your own business, you need to be always on and always working,” she says. For Baker, the constant pressure leads to exhaustion and burnout. Not only does this burnout affect her wellbeing, she explains, it also stops her from producing her best work.

Others find themselves over working due to the shame that comes from online hustle culture.

In 2019, the World Health Organization officially declared burn-out an “occupational phenomenon.” It is described as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Most commonly, burnout leads to stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. In extreme cases, it can result in physical illness or death, as was the case for Japanese media worker Mira Sado, who logged 159 hours of overtime in one month and died of heart failure in 2013.

For Emily Carter, founder of Ecosphere Consulting, a Human Experience Management consultancy, the pressure to hustle for her business has had the tell-tale exhausting effects in the past. “I do feel the need to always keep moving,” she says, “but due to a past habit of going through constant cycles of overwork and burnout, which I put myself through, I’m also very focused on at least trying to keep that somewhat in check.”   

Even though Carter is careful to avoid falling back into hustle culture, she still finds herself sometimes wishing she could do more. There is “sometimes a sense of panic,” she says, “that life is passing by and I haven’t achieved enough yet.”

For people like Baker and Carter, the reminder to grind and get back to work is ever-present on social media. As Baker says, “Not only does it result in comparisons, but there's no excuse to not be replying to emails or scrolling through networking groups.” Hustle culture has become so prevalent, her clients often expect her to be available 24/7. 

Carter says, “We’re too far down that path [of social media] to turn back. There were many times I thought of deleting all social media accounts, but as someone working in marketing (and now a business owner) that would be career suicide.” 

As Guest notes, the modern world makes it especially hard for us to take a step back. “We can sometimes live in a culture where we feel people should be working all the time.” And in this climate, she adds, having kids can be seen as “an indulgence”. Parents can even start to feel guilty when they aren’t working when their kids are sleeping.

Social media means that we are constantly confronted with examples of people who are working harder than we are. However, many of us work in industries where social media is a big part of the job. 

What is Digital Wellness and Why Does it Matter?

Social media also makes it hard to separate fact from fiction. As Carter puts it, “Of course, you know that everyone is highlighting the best most of the time, although I’m lucky to have a few in my network who are very candid about the ‘bad times’ too.”

And Guest agrees: “‘Fake it till you make it’ memes on social media can involve people using stock images of working environments, such as the perfect desk complete with scented candles and inspirational quotes.” As Guest explains, what we see online isn’t a real portrayal of reality, so many of us feel ashamed as we compare ourselves to something that doesn’t even exist. 

So, how do we find a healthy balance when we are constantly feeling the pressure to work harder and longer?

 As Guest explains, it really depends on the person. 

“It could be looking at someone’s beliefs and desires. For example, the person may be motivated to provide a good life for their family,” she says. “They should unpack what that means — children often want a parent present rather than the promise of expensive things.”

Many of us feel ashamed as we compare ourselves to something that doesn’t even exist.

Another important factor in helping someone extricate themselves from “the hustle” is simply to look at the health risks of overworking. “Taking time to exercise, eat well and wind down are vital to physical and mental health,” Guest says. “In turn, they are likely to make you more productive in the long run.” 

In other words, rejecting the need to hustle isn’t about rejecting the importance of your career — in fact, it’s about respecting it.

Finally, Guest suggests that self-employed people re-evaluate their reasons for rejecting a more traditional nine-to-five role. While being self-employed can give people the opportunity for more flexible, independent work, it can also be a sign that the individual has succumbed to hustle culture. 

“Often, people end up working longer hours or feeling guilty for not working,” Guest says. “If the role is not serving your purpose, it is time to re-evaluate your options.”

With a growing number of people subscribing to the belief that “more is more” when it comes to work, it’s vital that we take a step back and reassess our priorities. Instead of “faking it till we make it,” why not accept that “making it” doesn’t have to be the end goal. Maybe it’s time we started celebrating and honoring our time off more than our time on. After all, a job is just a job, so let’s start making time for the rest of life, too.

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