Naomi Mdudu knew something was wrong when no amount of sleep could take the edge off. As the boss of The Lifestyle Edit, a career-focused website for creatives, the former fashion editor had built a business coaching women founders and producing content for her platform and podcast all while splitting her time between London and NYC—and her schedule felt as unrelenting as trying to keep pace on a treadmill.
By late last year, Mdudu, newly pregnant, house hunting and wedding planning while still putting in long hours on her site, did something she feared would wipe away all her hard work: She handed the reins to her team for a few months and (temporarily) quit the daily slog. “I had to learn that I don’t have to be a martyr and do it all myself,” she says, after discovering the joys of delegation during her time off.
Taking a step back from work is easier said than done. Today, the message that success belongs only to #cantstopwontstop rise-and-grinders is preached everywhere, from trite Instagram posts (“You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé”) to “How I Get It Done” articles on the all-nighter habits of CEOs. Yes, you, too, could work 130 hours a week, former Yahoo head honcho Marissa Mayer told Bloomberg in all seriousness, “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower and how often you go to the bathroom.”
The law, investment banking and other high-powered gigs have long been associated with burning the candle at both ends, but hustle culture—or, as New York Times writer Erin Griffith recently dubbed it, “toil glamour”—has largely been popularized by the tech scene. It’s workaholism with a glow-up, rebranded with a glossy, aspirational sheen and enabled by our always-on digital lives. Being passionate about your career is one thing, but buying into the idea that success is only possible if you’re always striving and sweating and sacrificing other parts of your life is something else altogether. That mindset is a set-up for not only burnout but also feeling terrible about yourself: If you’re not a success yet, hustle culture whispers in your ear, well, you’re just not putting in enough effort.
Of course, working all the time isn’t the same as workaholism, says Dr. Katy Kamkar, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and it isn’t necessarily detrimental if you’re otherwise happy and healthy. “It’s up to every person to define what’s best for them,” she says. “But when there’s a [work-life] imbalance, it does increase the risk for psychological and physical health problems.” Signs your non-stop hustle has become too much: experiencing what Kamkar calls “work-to-home interference” (basically, The Devil Wears Prada syndrome); always stressing about your job; clashing with co-workers or your spouse; and, the most obvious red flag of all, feeling unhappy.
Sometimes workaholism also becomes a way to mask inadequacy or feelings of failure, says Kamkar. Vancouver entrepreneur Claire Booth calls this combo of constant striving and chronic self-doubt “achiever fever.” Five years into running her successful market-research agency, she realized she was miserable. “I felt like I was on a train watching my life flash before me,” says Booth, who embarked on a year-long quest to change, self-help-style, and wrote about it in The Achiever Fever Cure: How I Learned to Stop Striving Myself Crazy. This go-go-go mentality has become the new normal, she says, particularly for women. We are playing catch-up after decades of being held back in the workforce: “There are more opportunities opening for women, so we have to double down on our striving when we’re already burned out.”
While hustle culture cuts across generations, millennials seem especially prone to it, having grown up in an era when job security is scarce to nil and the pressure to self-determine success is greater than ever. A recent study published in the academic journal Psychological Bulletin found that perfectionism has climbed among college students over the past three decades. In part, the researchers say, the trend reflects how we’ve bought into the alluring premise of meritocracy.
We also tend to use work as a balm, adds Booth, “thinking ‘If I just work harder, I’ll feel better,’ but, interestingly, that never seems to happen.” One of her personal revelations was realizing how much her striving was driven by (surprise, surprise) her inner critic telling her she wasn’t good enough. She surveyed other high achievers for the book and found a common thread: “I asked how strong their inner voice was, with 10 being ‘This thing beats me up every day,’ and the average score for women was eight.” The lesson? Chase your goals, but don’t measure your self-worth by them, says Booth.
Even in tech, the industry that has glorified hustle culture, there’s a backlash brewing. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian described “hustle porn” as “utter bullshit” and harmful for your work and your well-being. As a countermovement, a growing number of companies in and out of the tech sphere are experimenting with shrinking the workday or workweek. Recently, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and an expert in organizational psychology, argued that workdays should end at 3 p.m. We’d get the same amount done, Grant said—in part because people generally waste a lot of time, well, just killing time. Last year, a New Zealand company made headlines when it enlisted university researchers to assess its four-day workweek pilot: Turns out the staff were less stressed, more creative and more productive.
While few of us have the luxury of a long weekend every week, you can still create your own boundaries, and that means mapping out what your best balanced life looks like. “How would you wake up in the morning? What kind of impact do you want to have on the world? What would the conditions need to be for you to feel like you’re living a rich, fulfilling life on your own terms?” asks Mdudu, who returned from her time away with a non-negotiable: no more working evenings or weekends. Of course, not everyone has the same degree of control over their job, and when your boss is emailing at all hours, you might feel like you have no choice but to respond ASAP. But defining some kind of limit, however it looks for you, is a start. “The more you can ask yourself those questions, the more you start to realize that your joy is more accessible than you think and it’s not all about chasing that carrot,” says Mdudu. If you need change, remember: The boss of your life is you.
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of ELLE Canada.