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Hustle Culture and Burnout: Is Your Work Ethic Slowly Killing You?

About 7 years ago, I had a non-Western healthcare experience that completely changed my life.

Since my late 20s, my health had been worsening steadily. At 28, I had a severe adverse reaction to Zoloft, which I’d started taking amidst the perfect storm of my grandfather’s death, my wedding (and my in-laws’ surprise divorce immediately thereafter), massive financial stress, and a huge, high-risk project at work for which I was primarily responsible.

For about a year, I struggled with debilitating neuromuscular symptoms and near-constant fight-or-flight responses. Doctors responded with attempts at neat-but-inaccurate diagnoses, prescribed more medications that didn’t get along with my body, and finally threw their hands up, as so many others would over the next 20 years.

Although the symptoms of my adverse drug reaction eventually subsided, in the wake of that experience, chronic illness became a part of my life. New symptoms arrived regularly and established residency. They worsened with my first pregnancy and in my post-partum months. The most helpful diagnoses included adenomyosis, fibromyalgia, visceral hyperalgesia, chronic idiopathic urticaria, mast cell activation syndrome, POTS, systemic nickel allergy syndrome...

In short, mine is not a regular body. At least it hasn't been for most of my adulthood.

To make a very long journey a shorter story, I gave up on Western medicine entirely around my 40th birthday. I arrived at an acupuncturist's/doctor of Chinese medicine's office shortly thereafter and dissolved into a puddle of tears when he didn't ask about my symptoms, but instead asked me about my life—my responsibilities, my schedule, and what I did for a living.

I left that visit finally understanding the relationship between my body and my job.

"We're not going to address your symptoms," he'd said. "We're going to address your stress."

Like many folks who grow up in works-based religious systems, I was taught that my worth was equal to my effort. That strong work ethic—I would later find—served me very well in startups, where hustle culture rules and short-term gains trump long-term considerations like, um, mental and physical health.

You can see where I'm going here.

You don't have to have worked in startups to understand the pervasiveness and intensity of hustle culture in the U.S., especially if you spend much time on social media. Hustle culture tells us we should always be striving to do and to be more than we currently are. Complacency (that is, contentment) is the enemy, and rest (that is, restoration) is something you earn through working yourself all the way to—and often past—capacity.

"Sleep is for the weak."

"More, bigger, better."

"If you're not grinding, you're falling behind."

"You don't deserve success if you're not willing to work tirelessly for it."

"I'll rest when I'm dead."

That last one... I mean, really.

Hustle culture's big lie is that success is available to anyone willing to put in the (ew) blood, (literal) sweat, and (literal) tears. If we invest enough of our mental and physical health up front, it promises, we'll reap the benefits of rest and contentment later.

You know, when we're old.

But as it turns out, we don't have endless amounts of blood, sweat, and tears to invest.

And if we run out before we've reached the promised land, then what?

Burnout, at best. Debilitating illness or premature death, at worst.

If I sound like a downer, sorry not sorry. I'll say it again: Hustle culture is based on a lie. The effects of chronic stress on our bodies are no joke, and—make no mistake—the conditions created when we constantly push ourselves to the breaking point are precisely those conditions that define chronic stress.

Doing work that is too taxing... for too many hours in a row... for too many days, weeks, months, or years in a row...

Friend, your body is NOT built for that.

Add job insecurity, the unrealistic expectations of a difficult boss, an organizational culture that doesn't support individual wellbeing, and a strong (some might say pathological) work ethic, and your job becomes your body's worst enemy.

Hustle culture glorifies a nonstop, breakneck pace fueled by caffeine and adrenaline. That precious adrenaline and its best friend cortisol aren't supposed to exist in our bodies for more than a short time. When you don't get a break from fight-or-flight, your autonomic nervous system can't do the important work of bringing your body back into homeostasis. It can't activate its critical rest-and-digest response, in which your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure are allowed to decrease while your digestive and immune systems do their healing and replenishing work.

And when our bodies aren't allowed to do what they're built to do, surprise! They break.

Spectacularly, in some cases.

Chronic stress is positively correlated with:

  • High blood pressure.

  • Heart disease.

  • Stroke.

  • Diabetes.

  • A range of GI problems.

  • Insomnia and other sleep problems.

  • Pain conditions.

  • Autoimmune disease.

  • Greater susceptibility to viruses and infections.

Folks impacted by chronic stress are far more likely to experience anxiety and depression. They have a harder time concentrating and, ironically, become less productive. They struggle to maintain the important relationships in their lives, they fail to properly nourish their bodies, and they eventually burn out.

Then, because it's all they know, they repeat the same toxic cycle.

That cycle describes my adult life precisely. My Midwestern evangelical work ethic—essentially a paralyzing fear of being unproductive—combined with roles that demanded levels of contribution and commitment that were simply not sustainable, especially after I became a mother, was quite literally killing me. I got sicker and sicker, and more frustrated that traditional remedies weren't working.

Nothing helped until I addressed the real enemy: my relationship with work.

If you consider your job stressful, but you're able to (and do) take a guilt-free vacation now and then, I'm probably not talking to you.

But if your relationship with your job doesn't allow for, say, a family emergency, an illness, or just a mental health day, it's time to get curious about what lies beneath your work ethic. I can promise you: It's about much more than money. It always is.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded folks—we are out here!—can be incredibly helpful as you try to break free from the grip of internalized hustle culture. Over the years, my acupuncturist, a good therapist, an amazing coach, and friends from similar backgrounds have been invaluable resources for me as I've challenged my deeply held beliefs about productivity and rewritten my definition of success.

Like any unhealthy pattern, the hustle-burnout-hustle cycle can absolutely be broken, and you deserve to be free.

You deserve contentment and rest.

Need some support with this? A 30-minute free consultation is a great way to explore some ideas and see if I might be the right coach for you.


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.


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