49% of all working days lost in 2016-2017 were due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
Let’s take a moment to think about that for a second.
Work is the single biggest cause of stress for the UK population—though given recent events, I imagine global politics is running a close second! And I don’t imagine it’s exclusive to the Brits.
Work can be stressful. It's not a secret. It kinda sucks, but most people will go through some variation of workplace stress or anxiety at some point in their career.
Many make it out the other side unscathed, others come back scarred but enlightened. The pain of a meltdown and bouts of stress-induced depression and illness become an “enlightening experience“ that leads to better balance. But some aren’t so lucky. Instead, falling victim to cycles of depression that claim so many.
In bootstrapped companies and startups where growth and an entrepreneurial mindset is paramount, this kind of workplace stress is rife. Fiscal stakes are unusually high, the pressure to succeed is elevated, job roles and responsibilities are fluid and overall company stability is, well, questionable at best.
At the rate the market shifts, nobody really knows if Facegrameroo will be a thing next month, even if they did just secure $5m in their series A. One data breach, harassment scandal, or CEO meltdown is all it takes for the next big thing to become the next big lead balloon.
It’s no wonder stress is commonplace in startups, but it’s a disservice to think it’s exclusive to them. It’s pretty universal, to the point society has become conditioned to think of stress as another part of everyday work life. A rite of passage, perhaps, but at what cost?
The High Price of Hustle?
A study by the Mental Health Foundation reported 74% of people in the past year have been “so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope”. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released data showing 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17. And in a study released in January, Perkbox—an employee wellness startup—found a whopping 59% of us experience workplace stress.
The Perkbox study did highlight some “obvious when you think about it” common causes, too. Individual and teamwork performance, customer satisfaction, even overall company performance were all up there.
It’ll probably come as no surprise to find long working hours at the top of the aggregated list. There are plenty of studies and reports linking overwork to stress.
As someone who personally suffered from workplace anxieties, I can attest to this. Now, I find a more balanced approach to life brings me happiness but it took me a long time to realise the opposite of overworking isn’t underworking, it’s just working!
So, it’s surprising to see an ever-increasing list of insular CEOs and Entrepreneurs who glorify the struggle of the 120-hour work week.
To what end?
You don’t need to look far to find examples of 120-hour work week titans internally combusting, posting Twitter tirades goading Government regulators, or going into meltdown accusing colleagues of criminal activity.
Some might find their success from the #hustle, but it’s not a pre-requisite by any stretch of the imagination—unless you make it so. How you define success is all that matters, right?
Defying the Hustle Trend
Of course, the trend of the hustlepreneur isn’t without its cynics—present company included. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read 4 or 5 posts attacking the heralds of hustle and picking apart their messaging piece by piece.
At times though, much of the vehement opposition is itself disjointed, almost existing for the sole purpose of being contrary. Blogged arguments contradict themselves, and instead lay forth targeted attacks on the gurus and their followers rather than presenting compelling, coherent alternatives.
A good example surrounds the marmite man of entrepreneurialism, Gary Vee—a die-hard proponent of a hustle hard work ethic.
Many of the recent critical pieces I’ve read recently have Gary as their sole focus. He’s a trending figure. Any attack piece is more or less guaranteed to generate some level of support and criticism from both sides. So much so, it can be hard not to view some of these posts as the blogging equivalent of social trolling—intended to provoke a reaction rather than present anything well formulated or valuable.
It may come as a shock to find out I was once a fan of Gary Vee. I was more a kind of lurker in the Vaynernation than a rabid voice, though I’ve read much of Gary’s back catalogue and consumed many of his videos. I even attended an event in London and waited in the post-event book signing queue for 2 hours—despite meeting him on the street a couple of hours earlier.
Since taking a step back from an out and out entrepreneurial journey a year or so ago—after realising the entrepreneur lifestyle is not for me—I’d lost touch with Gary’s content. I was taking it at face value, focusing on work-life balance, and this flew in the face of much of the methodology Gary presents.
Work-life balance is my jam. Regular readers might have read about my love of balance in all things. I honestly believe it’s the ticket to a happy life, and that happiness is the only definition of success that really matters in the end.
It doesn’t surprise me to see stats highlighting overworking as a major factor when it comes to workplace stress. Like I said, around a year ago much of the content I was seeing felt like it was glorifying “the struggle”. It felt as if it pushed fiscally-driven hustle hard rhetoric and 16-hour workdays, and the idea that you could only be successful if you were burning out.
A few days ago, I found myself reading a slightly disjointed attack piece on this kind of message—I won't link to it, as I'm not in the business of calling people out or ridiculing them. It wasn’t the first time I'd read an attack piece like it. As I mentioned, I’ve read 4 or 5 in the past few weeks alone, all with leveraging similar criticisms in an echo chamber of angry contrarians.
Something about the article struck me. Like many, it started out by mocking the hustle hard rhetoric woven into the fabric of Gary’s content while diminishing his value as a motivator. But what stood out was their take on Gary's motive.
Where I saw the underlying goal of much of Gary's content as pushing a "work to make money" agenda, they'd instead seen it as "work to be happy"—a message that I find hard to disagree with. I was taken aback when they went on to ridicule the idea of happiness as a motivation, instead positing financial gain as being more valuable.
This was all backwards to me. What kind of monster would believe making money was more valuable than happiness?
I felt compelled to revisit Gary’s content. The first time I’d really paid attention for the past year. I should have been siding with the author, yet before long I found myself backing Gary’s end goal. I mean come on, hustling hard for happiness is a message we can all get behind, no?
The Nuanced Argument for the Happiness Hustle
As I consumed more of Gary’s posts, I found myself in agreement with much of it—much to my
horror surprise. Gary was pushing a focus on happiness. Perhaps he was all along, but with such subtlety that I’d completely missed it.
As I reread some of the attack pieces from the past month or so, I realised many are missing the nuance and intention of the content, just as I did. It isn’t just true of Gary’s content, but other motivational speakers too.
Yes, Gary Vee promotes the idea of working longer hours than most, because that’s what has worked for him. He clearly chose that path, because it makes him happiest.
Is it a reckless message to push? Possibly. Is this kind of rhetoric directly responsible for increases in workplace stress? Most likely, yes.
Burnout is not the only path to success. Nor do I think that is what Gary and his ilk are saying.
The trouble is, we live in a time where every message put out into the world is either universally true or false. And it's just not the case.
Different people have different worries, different stressors, and different things that make them happy. We are all individuals, after all. Some messages are more applicable to other people, but it doesn't make them any less true or valuable.
You don't have to agree with everything 100%. I disagree with Gary's push for 18-hour workdays, and his hustle hard method of obtaining happiness. However, I do believe happiness is the only valuable motivation or definition of success. How you find and build on that happiness is up to you.
I think that’s the point.
When all is said and done, I think we are all searching for the same thing: As much happiness as we can find in an often cruel and punishing world.