Turn down the sound: how to muffle workplace ‘hustle culture’

Woman in an empty room, contemplating

Achieving higher employee retention, job satisfaction and business growth may be about recognising and challenging ‘hustle culture’ mentality.

It may be leaving the office hours after their colleagues, who are already at home and eating dinner. Or perhaps sending messages in those hazy hours between the still of night and early dawn. It’s often working through holidays, children’s plays, and birthdays.

Rarely switching off, with a constantly racing mind, it means work is ever present.

This is ‘hustle’ or ‘grind’ culture – a mentality of, “pushing someone to move faster or aggressively.” [1]Footnote 1 And its soundtrack is thrash metal.

With half (50%) of employees feeling that their work and home lives are becoming increasingly blurred, according to the Mastering the Age of Ambiguity report, hustle culture may further complicate work dynamics. [2]Footnote 2

As 47% of employees are feeling undervalued at work and considering changing jobs, employees may think they’re overworked and underappreciated. For employers who want high retention among their valuable employees, reforming hustle culture within the workplace may transform business for the better.[2]Footnote 2

The what and the why of ‘hustle culture’

To the untrained eye, hustle culture looks like a gratifying and fulfilling commitment to achieving excellence. It’s high fives, chest bumps and positive encouragement as employees push themselves to achieve their best. Making the impossible sale, landing the challenging client, or finding the next big lead can feel intoxicating. And, within reason, this is encouraging.

But behind its seductive reward system, hustle culture intensely pressures a person to work without rest, glorifies the pain and discomfort of ‘pushing through’ and focuses on an unspecified point in the future when it all pays off.

It values a person based almost entirely on their productivity and commitment to making money. [3]Footnote 3

Based on behavioural psychology, and how people’s actions are conditioned, it’s a form of addiction. [4]Footnote 4 As with many addictive behaviours, hustle culture is often rooted in feelings of aggression, shame and guilt.  This may be an employee feeling overwhelming guilt when choosing to rest or shame when a sales deal doesn’t go through (even if the two are unrelated).

And although it may seem like productivity and achievements are on the rise within the team or business, there may be a steep price.

The ‘grind hard’ mindset puts the body in a continual state of fight or flight, which raises the stress hormone cortisol. An employee then has a choice: rest, to lower the stress hormones, but feel guilty for doing so; or push through, to keep the guilt at bay, but edge closer to burnout.

And although it may seem like productivity is increasing, research suggests that “to produce quality work, employees must achieve personal satisfaction and conscientiousness rather than simply increase their workload.” [5]Footnote 5 Individuals who are less stressed experience improved productivity.

“The issue with hustle culture, is that the short-term gains in productivity don’t outweigh the long-term toxicity in the business. Research consistently shows that caring for employees’ wellbeing can improve retention and encourage high value candidates. And feelings of shame, guilt and aggression shouldn’t have a space in the workplace as employees need to feel psychological safety to do their best work. People want meaningful work that is not only gratifying, but also makes space for their personal lives, filled with passions and responsibilities beyond work.”

Debbie Bullock, Wellbeing Lead and Interim Head of DEI at Aviva

Our Age of Ambiguity findings show that while ‘The Great Resignation’ may be slowing, a movement which saw workers leave their existing roles in search of more rewarding or fulfilling employment, 60% would be open to leaving their job for a career change. And more than two in five employees (46%) say that a large number of unfilled job vacancies has encouraged them to think about moving jobs.[2]Footnote 2

To challenge hustle culture within your team or business and shift the focus to productivity based on wellbeing, you may incorporate the following 3 practices. 

Awareness and review

The first step in challenging an unhealthy practice is always awareness. Observation and conversation are often the most powerful tools in identifying unhealthy practices. The difficulty with hustle culture is that it disguises itself quite successfully as, well success. For an employer, seeing an employee blow the roof off sales targets or working late to finish a presentation may not raise alarm bells – on the contrary, they may be tooting their horns for hiring someone committed to personal achievement.  

  1. Observation  – noting (in your mind or a notebook) patterns of behaviour among either teams or individual employees. This may be recognising an employee that consistently works late, doesn’t have lunch or social breaks, or beats themselves up for not achieving a goal. The point is to shift your focus from an employee’s outputs to their repeated behaviours that could lead to burnout or resentment of work. 
  2. Conversation  – sometimes, it may be difficult to know how (or even where) to begin talking about an elusive topic like hustle mentality. One way to start the conversation, which could help employees feel safe about being honest, is through anonymous surveys. Developing questions based on your observations may help fill in the blanks. This way, talking to your employees, team leads and managers about hustle culture may give you insight into their mentality.
    Pay particular attention to their views on workloads and use of terms like “pushing through”, “grinding hard”, “good vibes only” or “no excuses” – these terms may indicate a more extreme view on feelings and work. 

Boundaries and breaks

Behaviour based in hustle culture mentality often lurks in the grey areas of workplace policies and guidance. Reviewing these to make sure employees are clear on expectations may help them to create their own boundaries. 

Regularly reminding employees to book lunches into their calendars or 15-minute breaks throughout the day could encourage them to view their time differently. It’s also identifying employees who either don’t take holiday, or work through their holidays, and chatting through their options.

Creating weekly mindfulness sessions, which can be attended in person or online, could teach employees how to slow down their thinking to focus on the present. This shift in thinking patterns can help individual’s realign hustle culture’s mentality of an ever distant (almost mirage-like) future. 

Managing workloads through delegation, reviewing meeting durations or attendance expectations, and regular discussions with employees can also help them feel more supported in creating boundaries around their time. 

Training and goals

Changing behaviour and mentality may not be easy. Hustle culture mentality often masquerades as extreme positivity. So, challenging it may be viewed as ‘negative’ and dismissed. 

As culture shifts often start from the top, and gradually spread, training senior leaders to recognise and address ‘the hustle’ is fundamental. Training in sensitive conversations alongside healthy goal setting may not only encourage leaders to reflect on their role in making healthy changes for themselves and others, but it’ll show employees that their wellbeing is taken seriously. 

Hustle culture is only half the story. To explore how the pendulum is swinging away from hustle culture, towards Quiet Quitting and its impact, follow the story here.

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