Step Back from the Hustle, Step into a Break 

Hustle culture can permanently damage our health: what can we do about it? 

By Kohava Mendelsohn 

Photo credit: Hadar Kalikow 

We’ve all heard the phrase “hard work pays off.” But how much hard work is too much?  

I’ve heard countless times from close friends how after a day of watching Netflix or playing video games, they feel like they have wasted their time, and they feel guilty or ashamed about it. There is a culture in the business and tech industry, but also in university students, of pushing yourself to your limits and always “hustling”, with no time for breaks.  

As Artis Rozentals from Forbes Business Council puts it, “Long working hours are praised and glorified. Time off is seen as laziness. If you are not hustling, you are failing.”  

I experience this every day when I hear my peers bragging about how little sleep they got, how many hours they studied, and how extracurriculars consume every other minute of their lives. I know that personally, I feel bad when I don’t do work. I feel guilty, unproductive, and sometimes even unworthy of my other successes. I have internalized the message of hustle culture: I’m not valid unless I’m constantly working. But this culture is not healthy. It is ruining our brains and bodies. It’s time to take a break (literally) from toxic productivity.  

Working excessively without breaks can permanently damage your health. A World Health Organization (WHO) study published in 2021 found that people who worked 55+ hours a week had a greater risk of heart disease and stroke compared to those who worked 35 to 40-hour work weeks. Working longer can also increase the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your body. Cortisol has been shown to weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to physical illnesses. Constantly overexerting yourself physically takes an immense physiological toll, and this is just one of the many hormonal responses that contributed to the greater health risk reported by the study. 

It’s not just our bodies that are paying the price. Hustle culture has a huge impact on our mental health. There’s a reason cortisol is called “the stress hormone”. High cortisol levels can impact your memory and ability to learn, can cause anxiety and depression, and raise your risks for other mental illnesses. According to Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscience professor at New York University, prolonged periods of high cortisol “can first damage and then kill cells in two key areas of the brain that we need for optimum performance: the hippocampus (critical for long-term memory) and the prefrontal cortex (critical for focus and decision making).”  

We need to stop glorifying hard work. 745,000 people died from overwork in 2016, according to that same WHO study. We are pushing ourselves too hard and working beyond what our body is physically and emotionally capable of achieving. 

So what can we do to push back against this narrative? Well, firstly we can start talking about it. Question those who praise pushing themselves to the brink. Call out the friend who brags about how little free time they have. Maybe that isn’t something to be proud of. Toxic productivity only survives because it is validated by our participation.  

Secondly, we can take a break. Let’s normalize watching Netflix for a day. Go for that hour-long walk to nowhere. Stay up late to watch the stars. Figure out how you best rest, and let yourself do that. If you’re having trouble rejecting the internalized narrative that you are useless unless you are being “productive,” remember that, ironically, teaching yourself to rest effectively will lead to increased healthy productivity in the long run. In 2019, the US National Institutes of Health found that taking short breaks helps us to retain memories and learn new skills. Going for walks or exercising can increase the flow of oxygen to your brain, which will help you learn better and concentrate as well.  

Most importantly, let’s stop collectively buying into the hustle mindset. Hard work is necessary, but pushing ourselves to the point of compromising our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing in the name of achieving “maximum productivity” is counterintuitive for long-term productivity and wellbeing. You are a valid individual even if you didn’t “accomplish” anything in a day. You are allowed to exist even if you  miss one or a few days of checking something off your neverending to-do list.