I’m facing a serious and all-too-familiar temptation right now. After spending two amazing weeks recovering from a lot of intense work pressure and reconnecting with family and friends, I’m already struggling with the urge to slip right back into my super busy routine.
And I know I’m not alone. Just this week, several of my friends and colleagues told me they’re struggling too.
Most of us have heard about the recent rise of “hustle culture,” but glorifying overwork has been around for a long time. When I was a brand-new consultant right out of grad school, we were explicitly told to “embrace the suck,” which meant putting in 60- and 70-hour weeks as a baseline, and prioritizing work above all else. Promotions, pay raises, and public recognition went to the worker bees who had the most facetime with clients and crushed their sales goals.
Today’s hustle culture is arguably even worse. Social media has not only glamorized the “rise ‘n’ grind” lifestyle but enabled it to go viral, and our highly connected, “always on” lives have blurred the boundaries between work time and personal time. In some industries, it’s become a point of pride to forego basic needs like sleep and regular meals, and to maintain a jam-packed calendar. One of my clients described how the goal among his team wasn’t just to have a calendar filled with back-to-back meetings, but overlapping meetings. As far as I know it’s still impossible to be in two places at once, but the point of their “competitive calendaring” was to send a company-wide signal that they were important and in high demand.
The truth is, hustle culture is a sham. And ironically, it doesn’t even work. Research has long shown that chronic exposure to excessive work demands and toxic work environments lead to burnout—and that workers who engage in regular periods of downtime away from work are happier, more productive, and more effective. And, while we may be able to handle short bursts of intense work, human bodies and brains simply aren’t built to sustain extended periods of high pressure. Just like an engine that’s kept constantly revved, something will eventually break down.
A graphic designer I interviewed for my forthcoming book told me about a former job where everyone was expected to work 120 hours or more per week. “People were dropping like flies from exhaustion,” she said, and more than one person had to be admitted to the ER. Like many people, she did not feel like quitting was an option. “I was terrified I’d be ruined in the industry if I took a break,” she said. “Fear was the only thing keeping me there.” After many months of this physically and mentally exhausting schedule, she hit a breaking point. She went to the rooftop of her office building and contemplated jumping—she just wanted the pain to be over.
Thankfully, a coworker found her and got her back inside, and over time, she was able to recover from her severe burnout. Make no mistake: Hustle culture is burnout culture, plain and simple. It creates toxic work environments that steal our health, happiness, well-being, and effectiveness.
Why would anyone want to pay such a high price?
Ultimately, she quit her toxic job and launched her own graphic design firm, where mental health and overall well-being are prioritized. “We rarely work more than 40 hours a week,” she said. “We want to be a model for other studios. Our hope is that, one by one, firms like ours will gradually change the toxic culture of this industry.”
As I return from my own blissful recovery, I’ve been wondering: How can we resist the grind and say no to toxic workplace cultures? Taking a page out of my book, here are a few things that work for my research participants:
Brace yourself for “re-entry shock”—that feeling you get when you transition from a place of calm and equilibrium to one that pulls you into the frazzle and fray—by paying attention to the changing conditions between your recovery environment and your back-to-work environment. What differences do you notice that cause you to feel a sense of shock? How can you prepare yourself to minimize the abrupt feelings associated with a re-entry transition?
- Get clear on what it was during your period of recovery that helped you decompress and feel more like yourself. Pay very close attention to those conditions so you can weave them into your normal weekly routine where possible.
- Before saying yes to new requests when you return to work, consider what’s getting in your way of saying no. Are you concerned about not being recognized, rewarded, or promoted? If so—stop, breathe, and check your assumptions. It may be possible to get the recognition and rewards you’re looking for without sacrificing your health and well-being.
- Returning from a recovery period is a great time to communicate and maintain your boundaries regarding work hours. This applies to the number of hours you’re putting in, as well as when you will and will not be available for work (i.e. no work after 6 p.m. or on weekends).
- Identify where and why you’re going above and beyond at work. Have you taken on or been assigned responsibilities that go beyond your job description? Has scope creep crept in? Is a boss or a colleague expecting too much of you? If you can’t identify the problem areas—or if you need help figuring out what to do about them—consider working with an executive coach. Coaches can help identify and establish boundaries and find productive solutions to workplace challenges.
- Broaden your sense of identity beyond your work role. Hustle culture says that your deepest value is found in what you produce or how much you sacrifice for your job. That’s a lie. Work is important, but lasting worth and wealth is found in our relationships, our health, and in activities that are in accordance with our values. Resist the norm that says you are your job.
- Leave a toxic work environment that requires you to “embrace the suck” and that rewards employees for excessive hours and self-sacrifice. If you can’t leave right away, start creating an exit strategy. A coach can help with this, too.
What suggestions would you add to this list? I’d love to hear stories of how you’ve said no to hustle culture or helped change a toxic work culture that wasn’t prioritizing employees’ well-being.