It’s 6 a.m., and you awake abruptly as your alarm blares in intermittent agitating tones. As the lethargy begins to subside, anxiety sets in, and you guzzle black coffee. While desperately awaiting the caffeine hit, you make a mental checklist of what you must accomplish today, tomorrow and in the next five years.
It’s now 6:30, and you sit down at your desk, crack your back and flip open your laptop. You have 150 pages to read on Epicureanism before today’s lecture at 9:30 (you get through 50 of them).
You race out the door at 9:15 and walk into class at 9:40. The teaching assistant flashes you a captious side eye – she doesn’t know the bus was late. Your professor is droning on in the same monotone fashion, you catch something about Turkey and Roman exile, but you can’t focus and keep nodding off.
The whole lecture is a blur, and before you know it, you’re trekking to work where you make minimum wage selling overpriced soap and candles to pre-teens.
You arrive home around 9 p.m. and wolf down a pack of instant noodles before pulling out your laptop again. You spend an hour procrastinating the midterm paper you have due in a few days and another mindlessly scrolling through LinkedIn, reading job updates.
By 11 o’clock, you can barely keep your eyes open. Netflix is on in the background as you attempt to muster the motivation to respond to a few emails. Your friends have been reaching out, but you haven’t responded.
By 2 a.m., you turn off your bedside table lamp and close your eyes, but you’re overthinking and can’t fall asleep.
I didn’t get enough done today. I’ll never find a real job. I should’ve eaten more today. I haven’t been to the gym in a month. Why does my stomach hurt? I should call the dentist back tomorrow, or the next day or the next day.
If this resonated with you, you may be burnt out.
Burnout is generally characterized by a sense of overwhelming stress, exhaustion, detachment, cynicism and a reduced sense of accomplishment. It is often the consequence of prolonged or chronic stress. It typically occurs when there is a significant imbalance between the demands of one’s circumstances and the resources and tools available to them to cope.
It’s important to note burnout can occur in a variety of settings. In addition to its traditional conception in the workplace, burnout can permeate academic environments, personal relationships and caregiving roles.
According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout employs the following points of inquiry:
- Have you become cynical or critical at school/work?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
- Do you find it hard to concentrate?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Have your sleep habits changed?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be experiencing burnout. It’s important to understand that burnout can have a detrimental impact on your mental and physical health.
According to a study by Professor John Pencavel at Stanford University, hours worked and productivity do not maintain an absolute positive relationship, with output diminishing after a 50-hour work week and bottoming out after a 55-hour work week.
Further, an article by Bronwyn Fryer published in the Harvard Business Review reveals that sleep deprivation is a “performance killer” with detrimental effects on one’s cognitive performance, impacting reaction speed, memory, focus, decision-making capacity, mathematical processing, cognitive speed and spatial orientation.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following additional symptoms:
- Excessive stress
- Fatigue and insomnia
- Sadness, anger or irritability
- Alcohol or substance misuse
- Vulnerability to illness
Note: consider consulting a doctor or mental health professional, as the above diagnostic tools and symptoms can also be related to other physical and mental health conditions.
So, why are we collectively driving ourselves to a state of overwhelming physical, emotional and mental exhaustion? Hustle culture.
Also known as “burnout culture” and “rise-and-grind culture,” hustle culture is a social phenomenon characterized by an intensive, obsessive and cultish focus on constant productivity, long working hours, and the glorification of busyness. It leaves little-to-no room for breaks, rest or sleep by pushing one to maximize all 1,440 minutes in a day toward arbitrary notions of success. It has turned exhaustion into a badge of honour. If you aren’t fatigued by the end of the day, you aren’t working hard enough.
According to Evangelia Melohe, a 20-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Western Ontario, “Hustle culture fuels the commodification and monetization of people,” she says. “The endless grind and obsession with boasting success, it’s no way to live.”
Hustle culture has been perpetuated through various social media platforms. On TikTok, for example, we see “corporate-Tok” and “that girl” trends, which often portray montages of 5 a.m. workouts, meditation, green smoothies, high-paying corporate jobs and side hustles. Here, the internet is inundated with achievement grandstanding, productivity hacks and destructive misconceptions about what success looks like.
While there is nothing wrong with encouraging hard work and determination, the pursuit of goals, financial stability and potential, there is a line to be drawn. Just because top CEOs claim to work more than 120 hours a week doesn’t mean you should too.
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, the routines of “hustlers” or “work martyrs” were disrupted, forcing them to reckon with a new reality where fulfillment and success had to be found elsewhere.
With the world forced towards “slow living,” a wave of anti-hustle culture emerged as quarantines, remote work and decreased hours created and imposed time for rest, relaxation and “unproductive” activities.
It’s important to note, however, that the anti-hustle culture is not a new or novel phenomenon. Staunch critics of hustle culture have long compared the North American context to that of Europe in recognizing how European countries typically prioritize a healthy work-life balance.
While it can be difficult to generalize, European work culture tends to emphasize more limited working hours, vacation time and flexible work arrangements built upon a rhetoric of wellness, quality over speed and collaboration.
To quote Hillary Clinton, “Don’t confuse having a career with having a life.”
Breaking the cycle
Whether you’re stuck in a toxic productivity culture in high school, university or the workforce, there are several ways to reject hustle culture and overcome burnout.
Self-introspection requires self-awareness. This means acknowledging how hustle culture has permeated your life. This is the necessary foundation for change, growth and progress.
Are you feeling exhausted?
Do you only have time in your life for school or work?
Take some time to reflect on your values and allow these priorities to guide your intentions and goals. Establish realistic boundaries and stick to them.
(2) Self-care, rest and reward
Prioritize self-care, take rest as needed, and reward yourself for small successes. Creating time and space to care for your physical, mental and emotional wellness is essential for your overall well-being and sustained productivity.
(3) Shift your mindset/redefine success
Challenge the tenets of hustle culture and the notion that success is solely characterized by pushing yourself to the brink. Take a step back. Personal fulfillment, overall wellness and meaningful relationships are also important measures of success.
At the end of the day, burnout is a vicious cycle, but that does not mean you have to remain stuck in it. Surround yourself with friends, colleagues and mentors who prioritize wellness and balance. Here, you will find guidance, encouragement and shared experiences as you work to reject the hustle.
About the author
Miriam is a writer for Youth Mind. She is a graduate student at Western University studying political science and international relations. She has written for Women Quest with the Ontario Learning Development Foundation (OLDF), Sidebar with the Diversified Dispute Resolution Institute of Canada, and Feminism Unfiltered. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her planning her next trip itinerary. She’s happy to be back writing with the OLDF team this summer!