“Work. Just work. Work harder. You need to do more, or you won’t be successful. You’re wasting your time. Keep on working. No matter if you’re tired. Just work. Everybody does it. You must keep up.” This is just part of that insupportable and interminable monologue the voice inside your head does every time in order to keep you motivated.
And what’s wrong with that? Is there something wrong with that? Yet what if it becomes more and more frequent? What if it takes no break? What if it determines you to take no break? Day after day after day it makes you feel guilty each and every time you’re not doing something that would bring you closer to achieving your goals. That’s how often people arrive at an extent of overworking themselves because they are scared not to waste a minute in their life by not being, so to speak, “productive”. It’s like being under a spell that forces you to work and work, no matter the serious effects this can have on you as a human being. So that more than a spell, it becomes a curse. A curse hard to escape.
Workaholism. Overworking. Toxic productivity. Hustle culture. Call it as you wish. This phenomenon has been so overly-glorified in time that nowadays affects between 27% and 30% of the world population. As defined in a Taylor’s University article, simply put, the hustle culture (the millennial rebrand term of this phenomenon) is the state of overworking to the point where it becomes a lifestyle. This means people working extreme schedules, forfeiting weekends, relationships, and many other human activities just to attain success, to reach a certain goal they have, and sadly, sometimes just because “being busy feels so right”. While the career is put on this untouchable pedestal, significant extraprofessional parts of life are seriously neglected (The Rise of Hustle Culture). Overworking is normalized to the point that the imbalances it causes in a person’s life aren’t even considered important.
Mr. Ioan Hosu, sociology specialist and university professor of the Faculty of Political, Administrative, and Communication Sciences in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, describes this phenomenon as determining people “to be permanently connected to their professional life, while family, hobbies or any other interests are put on a secondary level, neglecting different dimensions of social life”. A lack of professional fulfillment can cause frustration and a negative self-image, nor to say that it creates one-dimensional individuals, who can only be defined from a professional point of view, adds Ioan Hosu.
Iuliana is a first-year student at two different colleges in Cluj-Napoca: Letters and Law. She volunteers in the Letters Students Organization and leads an NGO with 45 branches all around the country. She regularly attends different conferences and Romanian grammar groups, organized outside of the academic environment. When I asked her why she decided to get involved in so many time-consuming activities, Iuliana replied: “I think it was my willingness to self-improve. I don’t like to waste time, absolutely at all, as I consider time extremely precious.” Yet she added that another reason behind the many things she chose to do contemporary might be her fear of the ordinary. “Probably I started thinking that the only way to achieve ‘success’ was through hard work […] I also believe in the idea ‘If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not /worth it,’” Iuliana adds.
There are various reasons why a wide number of people are affected by this phenomenon, and they’re all mainly related to the large mediatization that the hustle culture has in nowadays’ society. Just think about all those quotes saying, “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done” or “Let them sleep while you grind”. They tend to be everywhere: on T-shirts, books, agendas, commercials… even on bathroom walls. They are promoted by big brands (like Nike), motivational speakers, influencers, and even average people through social media. This last category, in particular, has proved to be a highly effective way of promoting the toxic mindset, since people love to post and brag about how much they work, making a real trend out of it. And as it happens with every trend, users adopt it in their everyday life, without realizing that what they see on social media is just a small part of someone’s real-life (The Rise of Hustle Culture). When it comes to social models, Ms. Rodica Afrăsinei, PsyLife Clinic psychologist, says that “we get to think that we’ll be serene, loved and content only if we work extremely hard without taking breaks, and we only allow ourselves to enjoy after we complete the next task.”
“Even if I fit in the typology of a hard-working person, and exhaustion is already a routine of my life, I do not agree, neither I encourage what I do […] yeah, ‘hard work pays off’, but that has a big price and I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” Iuliana says. She also thinks that only with a great ambition one can manage to pull off so many activities at once, and when it comes to her own situation, she says: “I often try to find new methods in order to be able to handle studying at two universities at the same time and have a great performance at each one of them, yet I didn’t find an answer to that yet. I’m still looking.”
Rodica Afrăsinei also states that what we see on social media strengthens the deceptive illusion of “Look, if I’m going to work hard too, I will be happy and appreciated by others; only if you dedicate 100% of yourself to work you’ll feel stable and fulfilled”. Yet the impact social media has is different for each one of us since. It revolves around what happens in our everyday lives, and especially what we see the people around us acting like, Rodica Afrăsinei adds.
The competitive society we live in is itself a cause of the hustle phenomenon. According to Ioan Hosu, we developed a culture based on performance and excellence, and by constantly comparing ourselves to others we get to feel unfulfilled, without taking into consideration an essential detail: we are not all the same. As Ioan Hosu adds “Not all of us manage to have the same level of performance, to meet the same standards, have the same motivation and so on. This is the case in high school too, where all the students are compared to the Olympic kids […] one can be very good, but not necessarily get to be among those ones.”
Although society’s pressure is an important cause of workaholism, Iuliana says it never affected her, and when it comes to family and friends, she adds that “everyone tells me to take my time and get some rest”. Her parents constantly make sure she doesn’t get too tired and encourage her to give up on one college specialization if she starts feeling exhausted. Instead, Iuliana says that among the things that keep her charged to continue doing all the activities she is involved in right now is the appreciation she gets from those around her: “It makes me realize that my effort is seen […] being able to have a high-level performance at both colleges gives me great satisfaction.”
Another important influence in this situation comes from managers, financiers, and owners of organizations promoting the spirit of hard work among their employees. Their message glorifying personal profit is actually meant just to grow the businesses’ profit. As Ioan Hosu says, “there are winnings at both individual and organizational levels… positive assessments from colleagues and the people leading the organization”. Yet, as mentioned in a New York Times article, the wage growth has been essentially stagnant for years, so we can’t really talk about financial profits most of the time. When it comes to work abuse, Rodica Afrăsinei claims it is mostly characterized by the violation of the right to choose a healthy volume of work, the low pay, and a lack of appreciation towards employees. Yet even when it comes to the ideal loyal employees, admired for being totally dedicated to the organization, according to Ioan Hosu, they get exhausted because they are exposed to overwork and don’t manage to keep the same level of productivity.
If we slightly switch to the more psychological side of what brings to workaholism, Rodica Afrăsinei mentions the conviction “I don’t deserve it”, which leads to “neglecting fundamental needs such as safety, love, autonomy, competency, free time, and free speech”. She also explains that this conviction can be at the same time a result of strong invalidation of the previously mention needs in life, determining a great difficulty or even the impossibility of choosing what’s right for our own wellbeing. Especially when it comes to the lack of autonomy and competency need, Rodica Afrăsinei says people start thinking: “I’m going to compensate for what I did not receive (the validation that I’m doing a good job and I’m working enough) by overworking.”
Emotional difficulties can lead to this phenomenon as well, because, as Rodica Afrăsinei says, when we don’t have the resources to fight shame, guilt, depressive states, anxiety, and the confidence that we can do it, we just hide them by overworking. It could be considered as a coping mechanism, and as Rodica Afrăsinei states, is also related to exacerbation of the narcissistic part of personality traits which sounds like: “I’m going to make myself known through work and my professional results.”
As a last theory about what pushes people to devote themselves to overwork like there’s no tomorrow, we must mention the increasing cost of living. According to The Rise of Hustle Culture, life has become more expensive, and because of that people have to work more in order to support themselves. “When there are different threats as inflation, reduced number of work positions, low wages and so on, people make sacrifices in order to fulfill their needs […] so they engage in activities that bring higher incomes”, Ioan Hosu explains, emphasizing the importance of this reason as an explanation for the number of hours people dedicate to activities that bring them financial benefits. Yet to financial difficulties, as a cause Rodica Afrăsinei also adds “poor financial education”.
In the context of hustle culture, the concept of “hard work” is deeply misunderstood. As the definition of this phenomenon says, by “hustling” people understand working a wide number of hours while neglecting the resting time necessary for them to recharge their batteries; basically, for their wellbeing (Taylor’s University). This leads to prioritizing the quantity of time people work over the results they have, which brings nothing but negative effects to both employees and employers. As Ioan Hosu says, “It’s not about the time […] it’s about the results. One can write an article in two hours while another one writes it in 20 hours. Who are you going to appreciate most?” And again, productivity is deeply affected; “we get to be so exhausted that we no longer can use resources as energy, motivation, knowledge” and by focusing only on results seen from outside, people tend to ignore their own contribution as individuals in the field, Rodica Afrăsinei adds.
“Burnout is a concept (accepted even as a diagnostic) that refers to all the consequences of excessive work,” Rodica Afrăsinei says. These consequences can be physical (such as pain, fatigue, difficulties in sleeping and eating, weakened immune system), or emotional and behavioral (helplessness, low motivation, procrastination, loneliness/isolation, coping with food or other substances). To this Ioan Hosu adds the regrets of wasting one’s life only on work, which might be realized when older. He also states that even if the effects of hustle culture are not immediately visible, in the end, they can cause deeply negative outcomes, and encourages people to find a balance between professional life and everything that’s beyond that: family, friends, hobbies, cultural life, and so on.
There’s nothing wrong with being motivated to pursue a so to say “dream” and try your best to make it come true. This is a positive attitude, and it can be of great help. Yet, be aware of the hustle culture. Despite Iuliana being a one-in-a-million case who manages to keep up with two universities, volunteering, and other extra-curricular activities, she still says that “at the same time, I know I need a break, I feel it and I try to be patient with myself. I’m not a robot, I’m a human being… and human beings take breaks!”
Believe it or not, the pandemic helped to the reduction of the overworking phenomenon. According to Ioan Hosu, especially during the lockdown, many had the chance to take a break from work and rediscover the beauty of spending time with their loved ones or dedicating time to a particular hobby they have that makes them happy. That’s why, during the last years, more and more people got to realize that there are many other things in life than just work, and they started spending time doing other enjoyable activities: “social life can’t be reduced to those 8, 9, or 10 hours of work”, Ioan Hosu adds.
Hustle culture can have many negative effects on a person’s life, yet it cannot be seen as the cause of the lack of sleep people are going through in the last years, or at least, it can’t be a cause on its own. If fact, when it comes to western society, as Ioan Hosu says, there are many other modifications that have occurred, and which caused a significant growth in the neglection of sleep, such as social media platforms.