Why ‘hustle culture’ is toxic to our sleep

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In today’s society, there tends to be a whole lot of praise for the ‘hustle’, and not a lot of praise for rest, sleep and taking a breath.

Overworking yourself seems to be a prized quality for many people, whether it’s a culture you’ve seen in your workplace or one you’ve learnt to admire growing up.

Today, it’s a lot more common to hear “Oh, I worked three hours overtime every day last week for the grind,” than “I asked if I could leave three hours early because I was just too tired to be productive.”

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Overtired woman working late at night. Woman on computer at night. Woman working late at night. Tired woman.
These days, there’s a lot more praise for the hustle than there is for prioritising rest. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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While the latter statement is obviously much kinder to yourself and your sleep, those two things aren’t really put on a pedestal when it comes to being a “good employee” and making career “gains”.

Instead, most tend to idolise working yourself to the bone, getting as little sleep as possible, overloading yourself with tasks and always being ready to take on more.

But as Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, the co-founders of Basecamp and authors of It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy at Work note, forcing yourself to work on little sleep is really just setting you back.

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Tired woman. Hangover. Woman hungover. Woman in bed.
What’s the point of the hustle if you’re not going to be working effectively anyway? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“For everyone in that tiny minority that somehow finds what they’re looking for in the grind, there are so many more who end up broken, wasted and burnt out with nothing to show for it. And for what?” they write in their book.

When it comes down to it, the hustle lifestyle is not only destined to fail, and land you in a desperate state of exhaustion, it’s also one that only works for a certain kind of group.

To be specific here, that group is often middle class, often young and without kids, and often without any underlying health conditions.

The reality is, the average person doesn’t just need sleep, we thrive off it. As much as we thrive off a well-balanced, nutritious diet and a healthy amount of exercise each day, we also thrive off sleep. And a good amount of it.

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We should really be trying to enhance our sleep, rather than sacrifice it. (Getty)

There have, of course, been countless studies to prove why we should all actually be working to enhance our sleep, rather than sacrifice it.

For example, a 2011 Harvard Medical School study found that for the average worker, insomnia led to the loss of 11.3 days’ worth of productivity each year.

To put that into perspective, if an entire workplace of 100 people is struggling with insomnia, that adds to a clean 1,130 days of lost productivity.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like any of those employees would be bagging a promotion anytime soon.

On top of that, there’s an unavoidable emotional toll that lack of sleep takes. By trying to ‘hustle’ through your tired, exhausted state, most will likely find themselves all hustled out.

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Sad woman holding smart phone complaining at home
“Sleep debt” or lack of sleep has been found to aggravate mental illness, including depression and anxiety. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

While we’re all probably familiar with feeling a little ‘moody’ when we’re tired, one 2018 review by the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences & Psychology found that lack of sleep, or “sleep debt” quite literally led to anger and aggression in children, teenagers and adults.

In some of the studies analysed, adults reported feeling “unable to shake their anger” and being short-tempered with co-workers. In others, their lack of sleep heightened other mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety.

It goes without saying that any of the above is not the kind of energy you want to be putting out into the world if you’re trying to impress at work.

As someone who’s struggled with insomnia, I can definitely say that a lack of sleep does not put me in the position to create my best work. Often, I can barely put my shirt on the right way round, let alone fashion up a new, exciting personal project, or be positively delightful at work.

Tired eyes. Insomnia. Blood shot eyes
‘Most of the time, feeling exhausted doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse to take a break.’ (Getty)

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Yet, most of the time, feeling exhausted doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse to take a break. Or if I admit it, take a nap.

The culture around us says “push through it!” and often mentioning that you’re “tired” is just a chance for others to chorus in “me too.”

So if we’re all so tired, why aren’t we doing anything about it? Would it be better to cancel dinner plans on Wednesday night, to get some much-needed shut-eye? Or ask work for a few 9 am starts, instead of killing yourself doing overnights every week?

Should we be more open about our insomnia? Or our home-life as it is? Maybe it actually is worth mentioning that your kids are sick and you haven’t slept all week because of it. Or that you’ve been feeling restless and stressed and need a day to recuperate so you can work at your best.

Maybe these excuses aren’t just excuses, but facts of life, and maybe our careers and workplaces would benefit if we opened up a little more and laid down some boundaries. Some “sleep boundaries”, perhaps?

In the end, we might all actually be a little happier and a whole lot more productive if we allowed ourselves to prioritise our sleep, rather than shoving it aside, forcing our eyes open and trying to hustle through.

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