By Connie Eyles
‘Hustle now, sleep later,’ ‘embrace the struggle,’ ‘rise and grind’. You certainly don’t have to look far for nauseating quotes on hustle culture, a recent phenomena which encourages a destructive attitude towards working. What is surprising, however, is the extend to which this has permeated modern discourses, so much so that I was gobsmacked to come across this quote while scrolling through my instagram feed: ‘sleep is for the weak.’ Surely not. It’s unclear where exactly the term ‘hustle culture’ came from, but in everyday use it is targeted at young people starting out in their career, promoting a lifestyle filled to the brim with work, productivity and financial success, which will supposedly guarantee happiness and career satisfaction. But this begs the question, is hustle culture really all that bad? After all, during a time of financial uncertainty, we could all do with some encouragement and inspiration, even if this comes in the form of stories of young entrepreneurs becoming millionaires in their twenties, however misplaced or inappropriate this may seem. The toxic side of hustle culture seems more difficult to decipher.
That being said, hustle culture is often synonymous with workaholism. At the expense of sleep, eating, personal care and socialising, workaholics will work themselves to the bone to achieve targets and ‘get the work done’. I had friends at university who would study daily up until 1am in the library, carried by the wave of perfectionism and coffee. Reactions would range from admiration to disbelief, but this goes to show that the idea of ‘hustling’, or moreover, an unhealthy relationship to work, can infiltrate areas other than the corporate or business world. Having said that, it may come as no surprise to learn that cases of burnout, which is the devastating culmination of intense and prolonged stress, is on the rise. Researchers in Sweden have calculated that between 2013-2019 cases of burnout related illnesses have risen by 144% among young professionals in Sweden.
A look into our own work-life habits suggests that this issue is not just confined to Sweden. Many companies are now acutely aware of the problem; workplace mindfulness courses are becoming an ever popular presence in workplaces across the country, and at the same time, we hear of colleagues taking ‘mental health days’ to recover from stress and poor mental health. Burnout, it seems, it the only result of hustle culture. This environment fans the flames for a workplace where it is seen as frowned upon to ask for time off work and where refusing to work beyond office hours is simply scandalous. Many forget that for our own sanity, we need healthy working habits and time to rest, otherwise we become overwhelmed. This should be a given, but if you ever hear the words ‘we expect our employees to eat, sleep and breathe this business’ in an interview then you should run, immediately. Your mental health ought to be a non-negotiable. In short, hustle culture is making us sick.
However, another search for hustle culture quotes on social media confirms the opposite and raises another issue; namely, the apparent target for these inspirational quotes can be narrowed down to one category: women. Upon closer inspection, quotes are framed against a backdrop of brightly coloured and oftentimes pink designs, and related hashtags include the equally stomach churning #girlboss #femalehustler. This pinkwashing is simply a mask: productivity is yet another stage on which women are judged and made to feel as if they are simply not good enough.
Marketing, the consumer society and expectations on the modern women clash to produce similarly horrifying messages in advertising and media; being a woman is simply not enough. Achieving the gold standard takes precedence over our health and wellbeing. Want to achieve the perfect body? Here are some diet shakes guaranteed to make you lose weight. Want the perfect career? What about the perfect relationship? The perfect routine? It’s easy to see the universal goal behind all of this, but how does hustle culture come into it? Messages such as these are specifically marketed to make women feel as if they need to constantly achieve something, and here productivity raises its ugly head and announces that we simply cannot just ‘be’. Next time you flick through the pages of glossy magazines or scroll through instagram, I implore you to look for these subtle messages, however well meaning they seem on the surface.
Many of us who are familiar with the fitness inspiration side of social media will be aware of Grace Beverley, a fitness blogger, businesswoman and influencer who started her brand from scratch while studying at university. Soon to be coming out with a book entitled Working hard, hardly working, Grace promises to tackle some of the pressures of hustling 24/7 while still achieving success and gives tips on productivity to avoid burnout. This all sounds promising, and it will be interesting to read Grace’s take on hustle culture, but more often than not we fail to see the contradictions of this. Influencers specifically target young women with the promise that they too can live the life modelled by them on social media, but fail to acknowledge the privilege and support afforded to them but unavailable to others.
You’d be hard pressed to count the true number of former TOWIE and love island stars promoting ludicrous pyramid schemes, fake trading or investments schemes. While this isn’t the place to discuss this particular can of worms, it is worth noting that many of these schemes supposedly promising to turn anyone rich quickly, very few people who invest in these profit directly from them. Former TOWIE star Danielle Armstrong was recently criticised on instagram for promoting Herbalife nutritional shakes, another pyramid scheme, and for targeting the product at new mums feeling insecure about their changing body and promising to help them ‘snap back’ into the perfect figure. Obviously, this backfired. The idea of skipping meals and promoting a ‘quick fix’ to losing weight is not only dangerous, but preys on vulnerable women feeling self conscious about their bodies. Those who promote and sell Herbalife fall into the marketer’s trap of profiting from making women feel insecure, while promoting the side hustle and work to ‘slim up’ and make money.
It’s worth noting that having a side business and an extra way to make money is not bad in itself. Many people used lockdown to express their creativity and make money by setting up independent businesses, wither while on furlough or at the same time as working from home. I’ve seen friends sell handmade soaps, impressive personalised artwork, jewellery and wax melts and make a substantial amount of money doing so, while engaging creatively. What is damaging, on the other hand, is the way side hustles, and particularly fake trading and investment schemes as promoted by reality stars, exploit people struggling to make ends meet and even those who wish to follow in the influencers’ footsteps. After all, an influencer’s following is primarily made up of young people and this who admire and desire to live their lives in this way; it’s easy to see how many people become victims to this type of comparison 3 and self loathing. In light of the pandemic and the financial ruin many are suffering, this type of business seems cruel and misplaced.
At the start of lockdown, many, including myself, will have found themselves with more free time on their hands, away from normal day to day life it seemed difficult to know what to do. Almost immediately, social media became saturated with adverts for language courses, business courses, gardening courses, programs that promised to boost our career prospects, and instagram posts of friends and colleagues who were spending their evenings learning Portuguese and setting up a baking business. This is where the ‘free time police’ reared their ugly heads. Whilst well-intentioned, it seemed as if we could not just simply ‘be’ in the middle of an unsettling and traumatic global pandemic, and we needed to make our free time the most productive it could be. Besides, we may never get this opportunity again, grab the productivity bull by the horns, so it seems we were told. I, like many, binged copious amounts of Netflix, apparently turning my brain into gravy. I, like many, did nothing significantly productive during the pandemic; I did nothing to boost my careers prospects, I did not set up my own business from home, I did not learn a new language or skill or try a new hobby. After all, we were (and still are!) getting to grips with a global disaster on an unprecedented scale, the likes of which the world has not seen before. Why should we feel guilty for simply managing and surviving?
To be clear, I am not advocating for a total ‘giving up’ of responsibilities and work. Rather, we need to reevaluate the common trope that me-time and self care are selfish ventures. Historically, women have been exploited for their work; the gender pay gap is a contemporary example of women’s work being undervalued, alongside the continued idea that parenting is a woman’s work, that housework is not deemed ‘proper’ work, and the startling fact that the pandemic has seen women take on the vast majority of housework, despite more families working from home. As a society, we need to make women feel comfortable in saying no to a toxic work life balance; instead of promoting a heavily gendered self-sacrificing lifestyle in the style of a #girlboss, would it be so radical to encourage a healthy work life balance, to promote healthy sleeping habits, to encourage people to ask for time off work when ill or burnout, and to rid ourselves of the ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset?