How the Hustle Culture Creates Unnecessary Stress During Quarantine

Examining our addiction to productivity under a global pandemic

If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either:

1.) a new skill

2.) starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business

3.) more knowledge

You didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline

You might have come across this blurb on social media sometime this month and either agreed with it or shook your head with disapproval. This popular blurb, first posted by a personal branding expert on Twitter, has been trending on social media and it has received just as much backlash as it has received support. 

Although it advocates for making the most of our time, it ignores the dramatic changes that we are undergoing during the global pandemic not to mention the personal struggles that some of us may be going through at the moment. More than anything, it highlights the unhealthy nature of what is known as the hustle culture — the glorification of constantly working and obsession with striving — by inexplicably shaming those who does not live by its standards.

The hustle culture is no strange concept to many of us. We may all have been engulfed by it at some point. After all, our modern society perpetually feeds us the message that being productive is how we demonstrate our worth and succeed.

How much hustling is enough though?

For me, I knew that I crossed the line when I found myself hovering over my laptop and studying for an online mid-term exam in the middle of a two-week meditation retreat. I was stressing myself out at the one place I was supposed to let go and relax. “This had to stop,” I told myself.

Sooner or later, those of us on the grind will realize that we are addicted to the need to feel productive (whether you’re actually productive or not is another matter)- constantly pumping out work, upping our skills, or starting new ventures. As with all addictions, this one can be toxic. By constantly working and endlessly striving, we often put our physical and mental health on the back burner and eventually burn out.

When the global pandemic swept our world and quarantines kicked in, it was hard to remain emotionally unaffected by all the grief from bad news. I knew that I had to take a break from my previous routine of feverishly checking everything off my to-do list and give myself proper time to adjust to the new normal. Even so, it was hard to ignore headlines like:

“How to start a side hustle during quarantine”

“7 ways to boost your productivity while working at home”

“5 investment courses to take to stay in the game after COVID-19”

Don’t get me wrong, articles like these were probably all written with good intentions and serve a meaningful purpose for those who are seeking new ways to improve themselves under a more flexible work environment. Yet subconsciously, they send us the message that even as our world comes to a near halt, we must keep moving forward at maximum capacity.

It was a reminder to never stray away from the hustle, even under a global pandemic — laughable yet worrying at the same time.

When New York became the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak, I checked in with a good friend that works there as a technology consultant. She told me about the pep talk her manager gave to her team in light of the new quarantine work arrangements. Instead of offering words of comfort and allowing some slack in these dire times, her manager sent a message to her team that went something along the lines of:

“I know this is a special moment for everyone, but our clients need us now more than ever, so we must remain professional and be on our A games. We cannot let them down!”

It was quite an insensitive message, to say the least, and a poorly executed attempt to boost team morale. Are consultants not humans that need time to grieve as well? (Note that my friend does not work for an essential business nor does her clients)

Another friend who works for a large healthcare solutions company in the mid-West told me that although her company allowed employees to work at home in the middle of March, it was technically discouraged to do so. Not wanting to put their performance reviews on the line, she and thousands of other employees still went into the office as per usual. How ironic is it that a healthcare company does not put the health of its employees above stringent company rules? (Note that their office employees are also not considered essential workers)

It is enough that large corporates such as these are pushing its employees to churn out work even though we are all currently undergoing a collective trauma, but we shouldn’t internalize the immense pressure to constantly hustle and deliver. It takes supernatural abilities to not lose some bits of focus to the dire news that seems to be coming out every hour. We are humans, not machines after all (even machines need routine maintenance and care), and we as humans need time to grieve, adapt, and heal from the collective traumas of this pandemic.

If anything, this is the time to slow down not only to question the systematic problems of our society that have led to this pandemic but also to question the systems we’ve created around the daily routines that have brought us to internalize the non-stop grind.

More than just hustling for the sake of keeping busy, this is the time to ask yourself what are you hustling for? Are you aiming for that promotion because you believe in the work that you do or because you just want to stay one step ahead of your peers? Do you want that fancy car because it would be a great addition to your life or because you want to feel validated? Are you pursuing that degree because you truly believe it would elevate your knowledge and skills or because you just want a fancy title attached to your name?

There is a huge difference between work that adds value to your life and work that just keeps you busy. The sooner we figure out the difference between the two, the sooner we can go on to living actually productive lives that do not jeopardize our health for the sake of staying ahead.

We are currently undergoing a dramatic change in our world that’s unprecedented in recent history. So please, give yourself the care that you deserve and do not let an allure of the hustle pull you back onto that non-stop hamster wheel of chasing a false sense of productivity. 

We are more important than the work we produce. We are human, and it’s time we start treating ourselves and others as much.

(Cover Photo by Temitayo Aina on Unsplash)

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