The pandemic helped me see that hustle culture is a lie

Life

Work always felt like the necessary centerpiece of my life. For more than a decade, I commuted to a slew of far-flung jobs between five and seven days per week. It didn’t take long for me to grow weary of navigating systems that were clearly not designed for me.

As an immunocompromised, queer, biracial woman with chronic physical and mental health conditions — including light sensitivity and anxiety— sitting in an office chair and staring at a computer screen for 10 hours a day wasn’t great. Simply getting through the cycle of inspiration, fatigue, and burnout was enough to tire me out and I’d come home drained most days, in a haze of exhaustion. I consistently left my body and mind on empty to prioritize my career and finances — until the pandemic left me with less work than I needed and no choice but to reflect on my lifestyle.

After COVID-19 hit the U.S., I had to re-establish my own work-play balance as a newly graduated journalist trying to freelance for the first time, and I’m still figuring it out over a year later. It might be a lifelong process, but in hindsight, I’m shocked that it took a pandemic to get me to reset my boundaries.

I began to reassess “being” a writer versus writing being one part of who I am.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be. By design, capitalism urges us to go, go, go at any cost — to keep up with competitors, markets, and our bosses’ expectations. Before the pandemic, succeeding on the job often meant long hours and constant “collaboration” (a.k.a supervision) in a sterile office space. It’s a demanding system that wears on the body, mind, and spirit with little room for reprieve or human error.

The pandemic’s WFH mandates provided just enough distance from my jobs that I could look at them in the cold light of day and ask what could be done better, maybe for the first time. It took a global health crisis to show me the true nature of my toxic relationship to work. After months of unsuccessfully overworking in an attempt to create a sense of security, a realization came like a slap in the face: Putting my nose to the grindstone doesn’t always serve me well. The nature of your work doesn’t indicate your worth as a person.

While I’m certainly not one to knock the hustle, I began examining it more critically. Why do we put work above all else — and what are we sacrificing when we do? Is there a way to somehow extricate ourselves from our professional endeavors just enough to find some balance?

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Natasha Ghosh, director of consulting and coaching collective Dig Deep Counselling, has noticed her clients asking these questions with increasing frequency in 2021. “We perform well by following the norms and fitting into the culture of work, so when we start to draw boundaries and say, ‘This isn’t okay for me,’ there are a lot of things that can get triggered within us,” she says. Taking breaks at work might give our colleagues the impression that we’re lazy, for example. This culture prevents us from putting ourselves first and recharging as we need.

Asserting new boundaries and potentially facing pushback can bring with it a wave of stress, especially for individuals who have a history of being oppressed and misrepresented in the workplace. Still, it can be well worth the effort. When we set those boundaries and create space for ourselves, our brain isn’t eternally stuck in work mode; we’re allowed to turn off and relax. Decompressing and making time for reflection can help us recognize the worthy parts of ourselves that are unrelated to work but rarely get attention, maybe by exploring hobbies or reconnecting with loved ones.

Of course, it’s easier said than done, but even small steps (like taking a lunch break a few times a week) can create a mental shift. “I think maybe the question is, why does it feel difficult to take a breath?” Ghosh says. “What about your work and work culture makes it not okay to take rest, and what are you afraid of? Is it that [you’re] going to lose [your] job, that [you’re] not doing enough?”

My fear was that I’m not “good enough” without my work to give me value and validate my human experience. And our culture of capitalism further reinforces that. I got so used to constantly being in an anxious state that work became a toxic source of validation for my ego. And my productivity is, of course, tied to money. While none of us can dismantle this long-held system, I did begin to reassess “being” a writer versus writing being one part of who I am.

Figuring out how to see these two parts of yourself can take time. Rejiggering my workload and only taking the gigs that felt right freed up the space in my life to get to know myself better, put myself first, and assert my boundaries. And while being choosy about which jobs you decide to take on is indeed a matter of privilege, just determining which parts of your hustle are draining you can make a huge difference in how you see yourself. Listening to your body’s needs can help you prioritize your wellness over the wellness of your company.

Ultimately, even if you love what you do, what you do is not who you are. The pandemic’s drastic adjustment of how we work helped me see that. Recognizing your value as a human versus a cog in a system can actually make you more confident since capitalism can make us forget about the parts of ourselves that aren’t linked to making money. “I understand it’s not just in everybody’s capacity to say, ‘Well, forget it, I’m not going to work for this company,’ but everybody has a breaking point,” Ghosh says. “[Establish] some small ways in which you can create success for yourself.”