Is it time to finally turn against workaholism?

Whether it’s called hustle culture or toxic productivity, workaholism is now mainstream. For the last few years, the idea of “Rise and Grind 24/7” has infected American life. People are working extreme schedules, forfeiting weekends, relationships, and even sleep to attain success. It’s the newest incarnation of the American dream, the belief that if you hustle now, later you can enjoy a luxurious lifestyle and astronomical achievement. You too can become Bill Gates or Oprah, if you just work hard enough.

However, the pandemic ground much of hustle culture to a halt. For many, there was nothing to do for months but look at personal and societal problems that could no longer be covered by a busy schedule.

As a result, more people are turning against workaholism. Productivity YouTube channels that previously “hacked” morning routines and emulated Elon Musk’s schedule, are now posting videos about hustle culture, burnout, and why self-improvement is ruining your life.  (“It’s all just ego,” explained one.)

Others decry the obsession with toxic hustle or share the dark side of overwork. In one harrowing thread, a security consultant described working to the point that he gave himself a seizure. “I, quite literally, hacked so much, for so long … that I burned all the glucose out of my brain,” he wrote. In a LinkedIn post, an HSBC project manager explained that, while having a heart attack, he worried about work tasks and how “this isn’t convenient.” On Twitter, scientists and journalists discussed changing their schedules in light of the frequency of travel and climate change. “I. Am. Not. Going. Back. To. The. Way. I. Worked. Before. Covid,” said one. 

Toxicity of workaholism 

The American idea of working hard to get rich goes back to the California Gold Rush. While we’ve always prized a strong work ethic, the Gold Rush created the idea that a person could gain large amounts of wealth after a short, intense period of labor. Over time this has morphed into the belief that hard work can make your dreams come true, especially if you have a smart routine and an inspiring vision board. The irony is that few Gold Rushers actually struck it rich. Those who made money off the Gold Rush did so by selling goods and services to miners. Today, wealth isn’t often made by people hustling for their corporate gigs. It’s made by companies who have employees so dedicated, they’ll willingly work the jobs of two people.

Cubicles in Philadelphia International Airport on Sept. 3, 2003. (Photo: Eileen Blass/USAT)

The corporate world is taking full advantage of hustle culture. In the last year, unpaid overtime shot up from 7.3 hours to 9.2 hours  and people are working longer in general.  Many employers expect full commitment. A survey by first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs revealed that they log an average of 95 hours per week and sleep five hours a day. “This is beyond the level of ‘hard-working’, this is inhumane/abuse,” said one respondent. While the the world’s billionaires got 54% richer during the pandemic, the average person has reason to struggle. Wages and unemployment remain in flux and life is getting more expensive thanks to rising prices, student loan debt, lack of health care, and skyrocketing real estate around the country.

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The price of overwork also extends to family life. In the Gold Rush, the majority of men left their wives and children behind when they went to California. While they may have intended to return, most never did. Today people don’t have to travel across the country to never see their families. They only have to buy into the idea that working 60-100 hours is necessary for success and should be prioritized above all else. It’s no wonder that workaholics tend to get divorced more. Then there’s the effect of hustle culture on health. A recent World Health Organization study showed that overwork leads to 745,000 deaths a year, worldwide. Working over 55 hours a week is a “serious health hazard” with higher risks of stroke and heart disease. It also affects mental health, job performance, and leads to burnout.

Change attitudes towards overwork

Given all this, it’s no wonder so many are examining whether hard work is enough to get ahead and find happiness–or if it has ever been enough. For 170 years, the hope of striking it rich has driven Americans to grind and strive, often to their own determent. At this moment, we have an chance to reassess what is lost when we embrace hustle culture. As the country starts up again, is it finally time to change our attitudes toward overwork?

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Joy Lanzendorfer is the author of “Right Back Where We Started From”, a novel about greed in America. Follow her on Twitter: @JoyLanzendorfer

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