A propaganda machine fuelling a pervasive long-hours culture in the tech industry is damaging the lives of promising and talented individuals, according to Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian.
Addressing an audience at the annual Web Summit event, held this year in Lisbon, Ohanian coined the term “hustle porn”  for this “glorification” of long hours, and attacked the way in which braggadocio is driving the problem.
“Believe me, I know,” he said: “the to-do list is long. There are so many things that you want to be doing, that you can be doing. There’s another event to go to, there’s a meetup, there’s a client to talk to, there’s an engineer you have to close. There’s so much happening that you need to become ruthless at prioritising your schedule.”
However, he warned: “I see so many founders who don’t appreciate and properly value their time, and that is to say there are infinite things you could be doing … the more successful you are, the more things you will have nipping for your attention.”
Ohanian urged tech leaders to prioritise “health, not hustle,” and scorned: “hustle porn is one of the most toxic, dangerous things in the tech industry right now. And I know so much of it comes from the States. It is this idea that unless you are suffering, unless you are grinding, unless you are working every hour of every day and posting about it on Instagram, you’re not working hard enough … It has deleterious effects not just on your business but on your wellbeing.
He added: “When you’re struggling, talk to someone. It can be a professional, a family member, or even a stranger can be helpful in getting you into a better headspace.”
Ohanian’s plea for moderation follows on directly from that of a blog he posted in March,  in which he revealed the roots of his early-career workaholism. “As entrepreneurs,” he wrote, “we are all so busy ‘crushing it’ that physical health, let alone mental health, is an afterthought for most founders. It took me years to realise that the way I was feeling – when working on Reddit was the only therapy I had – was depression.”
His Web Summit warning emerged as South Korea became the latest country to legislate against death by overwork. 
Given the boasting and one-upmanship that surrounds long working hours, what can leaders do to put up a rational resistance to that messaging?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Concerns about the health impacts of the lifestyles of so-called ‘Type-A’ personalities have been expressed since at least the late 1950s. Back then, cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray H Rosenman produced research suggesting that Type-A individuals’ penchant for ambition, competitiveness and aggression made them more vulnerable to heart disease than Type-B people, who were defined as more easygoing.  It has subsequently become clear that people cannot be so easily categorised – but the point is, those worries about the behaviours of high-performance individuals have been around for some time.”
Cooper explains: “while Friedman and Rosenman drew links between high performance and physical illness, later research in the field swung far more heavily towards mental health, with the ‘treatment’ often said to lie in work-life balance. The problem with this is that there are conflicting ideas on how this should be achieved – with some even going so far as to say it is not essential. The compartmental approach holds that, as we have limited resources of time, energy and sleep, we must spread out our tasks evenly to keep those elements in balance. Others contend that if you are throwing yourself at strenuous exercise and working smarter, you are creating deeper resources for yourself and opening up your time.
“And let’s not forget that there is a third group comprised of people who have managed to find jobs that they love. For those individuals, work feels a great deal like leisure. So working exceptionally hard over long, uninterrupted spells leaves them energised rather than exhausted, thanks to the level of interest and enjoyment it brings. Within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,  people in that group would be described as ‘self-actualisers’.”
Cooper notes: “given those sharp variations, it is hard to draw up regulations that will fit with every taste. Leaders must therefore be vigilant about the impacts that long hours have upon specific workers. Based upon what you can tell from your leadership vantage point, how is your team responding to long hours as individuals? Are there ways of ensuring that they don’t have to work so excessively? What works for your business model, and for your organisation as a whole? And to what extent do you really know your staff, and appreciate them as whole people with responsibilities outside work?”
She adds: “you will certainly see physical and mental manifestations of ill health when things go wrong – and they are what you must guard against. In that sense, the resistance will stem from your own compassionate observation and scrutiny.”
For further thoughts on the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute
Image of Alexis Ohanian courtesy of JStone, via Shutterstock
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