Well-Being//

The Brewing Backlash Against Hustle Culture and Its Effects on Our Mental Health

Experts explain what our obsession with constant work is doing to our well-being, and how to break the toxic cycle.

Joamir Salcedo/Thrive Global
Joamir Salcedo/Thrive Global

There’s always one more email to send, one more text to answer, and one more report to file — and before you know it, it’s 9 p.m. Business hours are long over, but you’re still at the office, and some of your colleagues are probably still there, too. When you’re finally home, you sit down on the couch, eat whatever you can scrounge from your kitchen… and check your email again. Your co-workers are still sending questions on your presentation, and your side hustle beckons.

This is hustle culture: our always-on, always-working mentality where being frazzled is a badge of honor and your work and identity are one and the same. And it’s really stressing us out. That’s a major conundrum because chronic stress is terrible for our minds, bodies, and productivity. A mountain of research tells us that in order to be happy, healthy, and successful at work, we need to take care of our well-being — by getting enough sleep, strengthening our IRL connections, and unplugging from technology to recharge — the exact priorities hustle culture encourages us to ignore.

Given that eight in 10 Americans consider themselves stressed and 40 percent of us reported being more stressed last year than the year before, it’s clear that hustle culture is terrible for our collective mental health. And a backlash to hustle culture is brewing. Over the past few months, headlines like “The Harm of Hustle Culture,” “Workism Is Making America Miserable,” and “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” are making regular appearances in major publications and fueling our national dialogue on our obsession with long hours. After decades of being told we could always work harder, and witnessing the impact of that mentality on our well-being, it may finally be beginning to shift.

May is Mental Health Month — to mark it, we’re deconstructing the draw of hustle culture and providing actionable too-small-to-fail Microsteps anyone can take to regain control over their work life and boost their mental well-being.

A race we’ll never win

The 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Needless to say, he would not be a fan of hustle culture. Going back even further, the ancient wisdom of Stoicism teaches that unhappiness, negative emotions, and much of what we would recognize today as “stress” are not inflicted on us by external circumstances and events, but are actually the result of the judgments and expectations we’ve made about the external world. This easily applies to hustle culture, as we compete with everyone (especially ourselves) to work harder, faster, and more because we think it’s expected of us, and that ultimately it will make us more successful and happier. In reality, though, the Stoics would say that only we can control our happiness, and we’re not going to achieve it by working long hours and missing sleep.

But if the nonstop work isn’t making us happier, why are we doing it? For some people, it’s all about FOMO — or the fear of missing out. “Being always on can create a constant sense of anxiety and like there is always something we should be doing,” Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit, tells Thrive. “America is, in many senses, a land of opportunity. There are so many opportunities out there, it’s easy to feel that at any moment, you’re missing out on capitalizing on an opportunity and therefore falling behind your competitors/peers.”

Not only that, but a lot of people genuinely enjoy what they do for a living or as side hustles. The problem, Boyes says, is that having a lot of different projects can make it very difficult to mentally justify doing something that isn’t productivity focused. “People can find themselves going to their job by day and then coming home and working on their side hustle by night, and that provides a good sense of variety, until the person starts to find it difficult to do things they’d like to do that don’t feel productive,” she notes.  

Along the same lines, this need for constant productivity sometimes makes people feel pressured to turn every hobby into a side hustle, which is part of our culture of making everything into a capitalist pursuit, Boyes says. Surely the Stoics wouldn’t approve of manipulating a hobby — an activity we do for the purpose of making us happy — into something that becomes an additional source of stress. Nor would the Stoics approve of another side effect of hustle culture: mentally putting a monetary value our time and allowing it to be a source of stress. As Boyes explains, if you chat with your neighbor for 10 minutes, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking “this just cost me [a certain dollar amount]” — especially for freelancers or others who are self-employed.

This commodification of our time and energy makes us feel as though we constantly need to sell ourselves; this can leave us feeling like who we are is never enough. “It can perpetuate feeling like your skills or knowledge expire shortly after they’re acquired, and like there’s always something more we need to be doing to stay relevant,” Dena M. DiNardo, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, tells Thrive. This can then lead to low self-esteem, hopelessness, guilt, loss of interest, and increase the likelihood of racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping and irritability — an incredibly high price not worth paying.

The hustle is hurting us

So what happens when we pour all of our time and energy into work and pour nothing into ourselves? In short, every aspect of our lives — our mental and physical health, our relationships, our success in and out of work — suffers. The way to reverse this is to practice real self-care: not Instagram-ready baths or feeling as though you need to treat yourself to a nice pair of slippers — we’re talking putting the time and effort into making sure you get enough sleep, movement, and healthy foods. But when you’re hustling, that is much easier said than done.

Like our money, we have to budget our time and energy so they don’t run out. “Though energy may be a renewable resource — and thus some projects can re-energize us —  time is fixed and, once spent, is lost,” Alicia A. Grandey, Ph.D., professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Penn State, tells Thrive.

Elena Touroni, Ph.D. a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic in London adds that the cumulative effect of hustle culture is that we feel deprived, resentful, and uncared for. “By being always on, we lose the capacity to be mindful of the present moment, which is linked to greater psychological well-being,” she tells Thrive. And hustle culture has the opposite effect from what it sets out to achieve: “Being always on increases our stress levels and reduces our productivity significantly,” Touroni says.

Our relationships also suffer at the hands of hustle culture. When we’re caught up in the hustle and are less present in our relationships, it can not only leave us feeling isolated, but it also means you don’t have people regularly checking in on your well-being. “When we don’t slow down to rest, recalibrate, and enjoy life, the body, mind, and spirit all suffer,” Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist practicing in California, tells Thrive. “Although we might not feel or sense the effects, the toll is cumulative and wide-reaching.”  

And according to Manly, if we never shift out of work mode, it also affects our brain function, which makes it more difficult to perform not only the tasks involved in your work, but also in everyday life.

Signs you need to reprioritize

We’ve been taught that working hard is a good thing — so how do we know when it becomes a problem? According to Dion Metzger, M.D., a psychiatrist in Atlanta, it’s all about balance, and you have to pay attention to your proverbial scale. “We’re all trying to balance work, relationships, and health. You will know your hustle is tipping the scale when it starts taking away from the other two. You are sleeping less, eating unhealthily, or canceling plans with loved ones. This is when you draw the line,” she tells Thrive. “Your scale is no longer balanced. This is the time when you need to step back from the hustle and recalibrate. Balance prevents burnout.”

Many of us only really start to take burnout and overworking seriously when we get physically ill — but we should never have to get to that point. Instead, be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of burnout like disrupted sleep, constant fatigue, forgetfulness, making careless mistakes, inability to concentrate, and unexplained pain, among others. If you’re noticing these, it’s a clear sign you need to reprioritize, recenter, and focus on your own well-being.

There are solutions

Even if you’re fallen prey to the lure of hustle culture, it’s entirely possible to course-correct. You can live a full, engaged life while maintaining — and even boosting — your mental health. The key is to turn to time-tested, science-backed gold standard solutions that have been in our power all along. This means starting with tiny behavior changes, which are more likely to become habits. We call these Microsteps, and here are some that anyone can try to reduce the stress of our always-on culture and maintain your mental health.

Declare an end to the day, even if you haven’t completed everything.

Truly prioritizing means being comfortable with incompletions. When you take time to recharge, you’ll return ready to seize opportunities. This will be a challenge for people used to constantly hustling, but an important place to start.

Go to bed just a few minutes earlier than you usually do.

Even five minutes earlier a night will make a difference. The incremental change will be so small you won’t even notice, but after a week the impact will be significant.

Schedule time on your calendar for something that matters to you.

Whether it’s going to the gym, going to an art gallery, or seeing friends, setting a reminder will help you hold yourself accountable.

Keep a water bottle at your desk.

When you’re always doing something, it can be easy to forget to stay hydrated. Plus, refilling your bottle throughout the day will provide you with much-needed breaks and opportunities to step away from your desk and connect with others.

When you arrive at work, pause and ask yourself, “Why is this important?”

Research shows that meaning is a motivator. When you consider your work’s importance and potential impact, it can help you discern which projects are truly worth your time and energy.

Make time for tasks that matter by dropping the least important items on your to-do list.

If there’s an activity or half-hearted ambition in your life that’s draining your energy and keeping you from really matters, consider letting it go. When you give yourself permission to cut loose the things you don’t really care about — whether it’s learning to read Latin or learning to cook — you’ll have more time and energy left for what you really value.

Each day, spend time on someone else, even if you’re busy.

Helping, listening, or simply being present for someone else can benefit both you and whoever you’re helping. Research shows that when we spend time on others, our sense of our own time actually expands. And when we’re in the habit of working nonstop, making meaningful connections with other people often falls by the wayside.

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