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Photo credit: LUIS VILLASMIL VIA UNSPLASH

Why hustle culture was toxic for my mental health

I burnt out and was hospitalised after pushing beyond my mental and physical limits.

Noreen Shazreen

Probably the coolest cat lady you’ll ever meet.


Published: 15 April 2021, 11:52 AM

I was 16 when I had my first part-time job. I was taught to start working at a young age to gain independence and a sense of responsibility as a teenager.

When I enrolled into polytechnic, I took part in two extracurricular activities to increase my social network while still working part-time and juggling my studies. 

I believed that I could succeed in the future if I pushed myself to take part in as many activities as I could and worked hard continuously. Seeing my peers succeeding and doing so much with their time also encouraged me to do the same.

Unknowingly, I was driven by the need to chase after a lifetime of success and eventually slipped into the hustle culture.

What is hustle culture?

Hustle culture means overworking and pushing yourself past your limit to achieve a capitalist goal of wealth and success. 

In this day and age, hustle culture has become increasingly popular – where productivity, jobs and paychecks are prioritised over mental health, good relationships and happiness.

With more people aspiring to become successful, workaholism has become heavily glorified, especially on social media. Figures like Elon Musk sharing how he became a self-made millionaire further cultivated a mindset in society where you need to work hard relentlessly to become a successful person.

 

With the rise of hustle culture, many Singaporeans strive to work hard to get ahead of one another to achieve success. PHOTO CREDIT: REAGAN TAN

 

This phenomenon, better known as the hustle culture, is especially prevalent in Singapore as our society has shaped the belief that someone who does well in school will continue to excel in life.  

The thing is, hustle culture isn’t as glamorous as what people make it out to be. Truth be told, it almost destroyed me in the long run.

Adopting hustle culture results in toxic competitiveness

It was common to hear my friends at school brag about working an excessive number of hours on an assignment and getting little to no sleep. I was no different. 

Being part of “Team No Sleep” became my badge of honour and something I would often brag about to my friends too. Oddly enough, my self-esteem rose whenever I told my friends I had worked so hard the previous night because it proved that I had maximised my day to be productive.

 

I was willing to sacrifice my sleep as long as I could use that extra time to do more work. PHOTO CREDIT: AARON BURDEN VIA UNSPLASH

 

As hustle culture glamourises workaholism and productivity, I had internalised a mindset that if I worked really hard, I will be successful one day. 

My idea of success meant that I was willing to sacrifice even the basic needs of life – such as eating, sleeping and maintaining relationships – as long as I can reap the rewards later in the future. 

I felt compelled to work hard to meet my lecturers’ expectations and to keep up with my friends as it gave me a sense of superiority over others for my own hard work. 

But instead of motivating each other to excel together, this only created an unhealthy competition among us as jealousy began to brew when we tried to “out-hustle” each other.

Basing my self-worth on the amount of work I was doing

The intense workaholic culture also meant that I based my self-worth on the amount of work I was doing instead of my own qualities as a person. 

I would feel guilty if I was not being productive like doing my assignments or putting in more shifts at work. Even simple things like taking a break or catching up on my favourite television series would put me in a state of self-loathe. 

When I was younger, I would often hear from my teachers and seniors that one has to have an excellent resume filled with a list of extracurricular activities and good grades to be accepted into their dream school or job.

This advice that had been ingrained in my mind was what drove me to continue working hard despite knowing I was already pushing myself beyond my boundaries. My work-centric mindset continued to follow me home, even after working hours.

On the weekdays, I would be busy working on my assignments, going to classes and attending meetings for my CCAs. On the weekends, I would be involved in my part-time job or side projects like my freelance photography gigs.

 

I spent the majority of my time and commitment on my extracurricular activities that would end as late as 11pm on most days. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/NOREEN SHAZREEN

 

I was trying to optimise all of my time that I had failed to achieve a work-life balance. My entire week would be filled with activities related to school or work. 

I didn’t manage to dedicate time for myself, my family and my friends. I thought that if work equals success, someone who dedicates their entire life working must be very successful or at least have the potential to be someday.

Negative impact on my relationships and mental health

While the quote “don’t stop when you are tired, only stop when you are done” meant well as an inspiration to others, the mindset of only stopping when I’m tired only made me work myself into exhaustion.

I was willing to miss out on my friend’s birthday parties, social gatherings and family dinners just to clock in more hours for a shift at work. 

Naturally, my friends were upset and hurt by my actions but as I was too engrossed in trying to build this wall of success, their perception of me no longer mattered. 

My eating habits, sleep schedule and mental health were all neglected when I was busy keeping up with the fast-paced lifestyle. I had irregular meals and ate unhealthily out of convenience to save time due to my busy schedule. 

Over time, the overwhelming amount of stress, accompanied by my lack of nutrition from a proper diet, destroyed my health. I started falling sick and was eventually hospitalised as I had overworked myself.

 

My body suffered from emotional exhaustion and other ailments including frequent headaches and stomach issues when I had overworked myself. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/NOREEN SHAZREEN

 

Prior to my hospitalisation, I was already experiencing other irregular symptoms such as constant headaches, rapid heart rate and nausea. 

I even vomited twice while I was making my way to my classes. However, I had become so accustomed to my daily stressors that I failed to notice that these symptoms were signs that my body was not functioning optimally.

I remember laying on the hospital bed, feeling so weak and vulnerable that I couldn’t even bring myself to get up. Even when my health was at its worst, I still felt guilty that I was wasting my time being in the hospital when I should have been at school preparing for an upcoming event. 

I insisted that I was okay and didn’t need to spend a night at the hospital, but my doctor convinced me that I needed to rest and be monitored throughout the night. My blood was also taken by the doctor to monitor if there were other underlying conditions affecting my body. 

That was the turning point when I realised that things have gotten out of hand. 

The one night spent in the hospital wasn’t enough to help me fully recover. I was advised to go for further checkups two weeks after for the doctor to examine my health condition.

Recovering from the exhaustion of hustle culture

I left my part-time job and had to quit both of my extracurricular activities to recover from the negative impacts of the burnout. I needed the time to focus on recovering from the emotional and physical exhaustion I experienced over the past year. 

After a year of completely neglecting myself, I took a break to recharge my body and disconnected from any kinds of work that may exert stress on my body. I also went on a digital detox to disconnect from the world and only focused on healing myself. 

 

Being disconnected from the rest of the world and spending more time in nature helped me connect with myself and my goals after the burnout. PHOTO CREDIT: HEATHER MOUNT VIA UNSPLASH

 

Hustle culture is not a healthy or sustainable way of living. While it might work for others, it is not a lifestyle I would continue to follow just for the ultimate goal of gaining wealth and success.

Don’t get me wrong, working hard is important. But the extra hours of work, the lack of socialising and the cost of missing out on fun experiences were not worth it.

Now, I no longer feel guilty when I take a 10-minute break, watch my favourite guilty pleasure movie or meet up with my friends. 

I learnt that taking care of my mental health, happiness and maintaining good relationships are way more important than a mere letter grade on my report card.

The journey to success is different for everyone. For me, I realised that success is not just about money and work, but instead on finding a state of happiness and being appreciative of what I have in life.


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