How hustle culture can crush your soul, and how to fix it.
Plus, Columns - the checklist app for list lovers.
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Stop flirting with burnout. Learn how to recover from work exhaustion without quitting your job.
Self-care and hustling are in constant battle. Whenever one hits, the other one throws a left uppercut.
Logging into social media in the morning means you can go from watching an influencer share messages about healthy work-life balance to reading a tweet about how many productive activities a Gary Vee advocate has already crammed into his morning by 9 a.m.
It’s true that anything in extreme measures does more harm than good. That said, hustling is nothing more than constantly flirting with burnout.
What do I mean by hustling?
Hustling, as Forbes describes it, is “to grind and exert ourselves at our maximum capacity, every day, and accomplish our goals and dreams at a lightning speed that matches the digital world we’ve built around ourselves.”
The Hustle Culture, as it’s usually referred to, preaches that the harder you work, the bigger the reward. The problem is that constant hustling can make you addicted to the prize that comes from working hard, and even when you’re exhausted, you cannot stop.
According to Help Guide, “The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal.” And as a result, it produces dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone.
Hustling can easily morph into workaholism. And workaholism — like any other addiction — is a very difficult behavior to stop because it gives you dopamine.
According to Healthline, “Much like someone with a drug addiction, a person with a work addiction achieves a ‘high’ from working. This leads them to keep repeating the behavior that gives them this high. People with a work addiction may be unable to stop the behavior despite the negative ways it may affect their personal life or physical or mental health.”
The more you take onto your plate, the more indispensable you feel. That feeling, added to the “highs,” makes it almost impossible to stop. And when you don’t stop — just like Icarus — you fly too close to the sun and go down in flames.
If you play with fire, you’ll get burned.
I always thought people hustled to get an external reward, be it salary increases, promotions, etc. But after talking to Nat Couropmitree, spiritual/life coach and founder of Bold Aliveness, I understood things differently. In a recent interview over Zoom, Nat described how his motivation for hustling came from an emptiness he was feeling inside. He wanted to prove to himself that he was enough. He was looking externally for validation, love and energy. He put all of that pressure into his work, which resulted in him hustling to try to feel like enough, but it ended in burnout.
Burnout results from an unsustainable lifestyle that leads to exhaustion. According to Help Guide, it “is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.”
Danny Chi, senior software engineer manager at Twitch, described burnout as much more than mental or physical fatigue. “If you believe in the soul, it's a bit of soul fatigue, just kind of tiredness across the board,” he said in an interview with Steve, our editor in chief, and me.
Burnout is way more common than you may think. As found in this article by Refinery29, “According to an Insider survey of over 1,000 American workers, 61% said they were currently ‘at least somewhat burned out.’”
And while burnout can make you physically ill, before reaching that point, the brain and body send other indicators to alert you that you’re close to wearing out. According to Thrive Global, these are some of the signs that you should be paying attention to:
Making constant and careless mistakes
Feeling like you’re failing
Thinking the world is against you
Being constantly exhausted (even if you’re sleeping the same number of hours as usual)
Revisiting a bad habit
Having constant and unexplained pain
Feeling it’s harder to focus
Being easily bored
Finding it difficult to be present
Experiencing short term memory loss
Feeling irritated and hurting others
I think Stacey King Gordon, writer and Google’s UX content strategy manager, uses the perfect words to describe it when she writes, “Burnout is the car crash you don’t see coming.” She explains that it feels like it hits you out of nowhere when in reality you missed some red lights.
However, preventing burnout is not just an individual responsibility. If you’re a manager or a team leader, you should also focus on promoting a healthy work environment, not a culture that glamorizes hustling. Danny Chi told us he thinks it’s important to ask his team every other week when their next vacation is scheduled, encourage them to take another day off after a long weekend, or tell them to not come in if they’ve been working too much or had a big launch. “Those are all hallmarks of a compassionate leader,” he explained.
Danny Chi shared some things you can do as a leader to prevent your team from burning out. For example:
Finding virtual ways to bond, “At Twitch, we have a check-in once a week that's not our normal standup. The team orders some brunch, we eat together and we play Among Us or other light-hearted activities to take people's minds off of their work,” he shared.
Asking the team about their health in 1:1s, instead of just asking how they are.
Adjusting to what makes others feel better — keeping cameras off during virtual meetings, for example.
Learning to manage expectations, if you don’t have the possibility of hiring others, managing expectations is key. “Don't be afraid to pull the plug on a service or a feature. As leaders, it's very hard for us to do that. But if you're starting something new, you don't want to continue to pay 40% of your resourcing towards something that may not be all that great. Pulling the plug is hard, but necessary,” Danny affirmed.
If it’s bad for you, then why do so many people hustle?
For the same reasons people smoke, overeat or partake in any unhealthy habit: It feels good. So you keep doing it until eventually, it feels impossible to stop.
Addiction is a real disease. If you or anyone you know needs help, review this website to find a free rehab center near you.
Over thirteen years ago, Nat, the writer and life coach, was employed at a startup when he burned out. He was working non-stop. “I wanted to do a really good job. I needed to give all of myself, and I would prioritize work over my own well-being.” He explained.
Nat says he valued himself based on how much he could accomplish. “I actually never felt empowered when I was hustling. I think the nature of hustling is that it never feels like enough. Like there's always more to do,” Nat said.
Nat’s hustling eventually led to symptoms that he says resembled the flu or a cold that didn’t get any better after weeks. He also had constant headaches. Doctors said that nothing was wrong and simply gave him some medication, but that didn’t work.
His symptoms aren’t abnormal. The tricky thing about recognizing burnout is that it can feel as subtle as a minor bout of the flu, leaving you tired but able to recuperate after a bit of downtime. Or it can strike aggressively, sending you to the hospital. Whatever the case, it can drain you physically and emotionally, and you shouldn’t underestimate that feeling.
Journalist Anne Helen Petersen told Refinery29 that the feeling can also be described as “internalized capitalism, which is when you really think of yourself only in terms of your ability to work."
Nat thought the same thing. He was looking for validation in the work he did. He said it felt as if there was a “right path or right way” to be successful, and what he wanted to achieve in life was not it. His dream career — focusing on alternative medicine and studying how our energies can impact our lives — didn’t seem like that right path. So he hustled at his startup job to see if his work could eventually feel “right.”
The problem is, there’s no one universal right path. It’s okay if the center of your life is work, with the right balance, but it’s also okay if it isn’t. And that doesn’t mean you’ll be a bad employee or that you have to devote yourself to work on something you might not even like that much. You are much more than your work.
Since that’s easier said than done, and if you’ve read this far, it’s possible that you’re feeling numb or a little burnt out by your job.
Here are some things you can do to recover from burnout without quitting your job.
If the reason you burned out is due to work, then you might need to step away from your business or organization — at least momentarily. The only way to cure exhaustion is by resting.
As a side note, there are many companies out there that will care for your well-being and provide PTO options. If that’s not currently the case for you but you do have vacation days available, it can be a smart idea to use them to recover.
I’m aware that not everyone has the privilege of just asking for a day off. Some may have to care for others or cannot spare losing work because it means less money. For those cases, I don’t have a magical answer. I wish I did. The best thing is to listen to your body and find ways in your day-to-day to relax, disconnect and allow your mind to rest to avoid getting to this stage. (And if this is you, point number five in the list below is highly crucial for you.)
If you’re suffering from burnout and you cannot quit or stop the operation, below are some things that might help you recover:
Get professional help. You can’t do everything by yourself, especially when it comes to recovering. Many researchers have recently been studying the relationship between burnout and serious mental and physical health issues like anxiety, depression, and strokes. Such serious health issues should not be taken lightly and may require a therapist or doctor and pharmacological intervention.
Disconnect for a few days. Even if it’s just for the weekend, or for a few hours, force yourself to rest and put away your cell phone or computer. This will allow your brain to reset. Plus, not having your electronics around will make it easier to suppress the urge to answer a work-related question or get ahead on pending tasks.
Delegate. This can take a mental shift and a great deal of strength, but remember that you don’t need to do everything yourself. Delegate tasks and free your agenda up as much as you can.
Put yourself first. Leave early, sign up for a sport or a gym class, meditate, go on long walks, or take up a hobby. Prioritize yourself.
Schedule downtime. Set reminders to take breaks, exercise, drink water and finish your workday at a scheduled time.
Build a support system. Ask your partner, best friend, co-worker, or family member to be there for you. Having someone to talk to or to help you take care of your family, pets or house for a day can make a world of difference. It’s okay to ask for help. That’s when your support system comes in handy.
Prioritize your sleep. Buy a white noise machine, black-out curtains, noise-canceling headphones, or a diffuser with essential oils. Anything that will improve the quality of your sleep and will help you to sleep at least 7-8 hours a night is a great investment.
If you're feeling close to burning out, don’t wait until it’s too late. Seek out help today. After all, it’s far easier to recover before you crash. Likewise, if you know someone who you suspect is close to wearing out, encourage them to take a break or ask their manager to help out.
It’s perfectly fine to work hard and love your job, but as they say, do everything in moderation.
Edited by: Lauren Maslen
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