New York City's Workaholic Culture Reimagined
I stared at the glowing screen well past the time I knew I should be sleeping. I cut and pasted, responded to emails, researched, edited. My eyelids were cinder blocks, but I pushed through. Getting things done is what I do. I glanced at the time and knew I would regret working this late the next day.
I kept working. I haven’t earned my sleep yet. I need to get more done today. I rewrote the same sentence at least three times as I struggled to remember what I was trying to say. I realized — this isn’t productive. It didn’t matter. I kept working anyway.
The neverending hustle of New York City is both encouraging and exhausting. When you live in the city that never sleeps, if you're like me, you feel guilty for sleeping when everyone else is seemingly awake. But that's the New York culture. We all work hard, we're smart, we hustle, and we succeed. But at what cost?
The morning after a late night of trying to conquer the world, I always have a lot of questions for myself. Do I work just for work’s sake? Do I push myself too hard? I love identifying as one who hustles, but how many times have I hustled without actually getting things done? How do I break the cycle of the “mindless grind” so I can do meaningful work? Am I a workaholic? What is a workaholic anyway?
Workaholism is generally defined as an addiction to work that is so extreme that it impacts a person’s health. Researchers at the University of Bergen conducted a study that identified seven common characteristics of workaholism.
- You think of how you can free up more time to work.
- You spend much more time working than initially intended.
- You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and/or depression.
- You have been asked by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
- You become stressed if you can’t work.
- You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.
While the condition of workaholism does not yet exist in the DSM-V (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), some health experts believe that it should. In an article in VeryWellMind, Dr. Elizabeth Hartney says,
The original reason the term “workaholic” was coined was to demonstrate the parallel between work addiction and alcoholism, and this is probably more accurate than the common perception that someone who works excessively is a responsible and ethical person.
In short, workaholism, if not recognized by scientists yet as a codified mental illness, is definitely bad for our health.
New Yorkers' compulsion to use work to cope with negative feelings can not only have consequences in our personal relationships, but it can also cause undue stress on our mental wellbeing. The physical effects of extreme workaholism can be anger, depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches.
The point is — many of us bury ourselves in work to escape having to deal with other aspects of our lives. While I may not be at a place yet where I have demonstrated all of the characteristics of a workaholic, I can definitely see how it could be a slippery slope. And it’s one that I’m approaching at a pretty fast clip. Am I addicted? I don’t think I am yet. But even if I were, it might not even be seen as a bad thing.
In Inc. Magazine, Amy Morin says, “Workaholism has been coined ‘the addiction of the century.’ But rather than view the compulsive need to keep working as a problem, many people glorify the desire to grind 24/7.” So, even though working too much is bad for us, our current society paints it in a positive light.
Society’s view of workaholism
In our New York culture of “hustle,” workaholics are lauded for their success. When I Googled the words, “Are workaholics more successful,” the first article that appeared was a Business Insider article by Hillary White entitled, “Being a Workaholic Might Actually Be a Good Thing.” In this article, White says, “I’m workaholic, and I’m not sorry about it.” She states that she “can’t and won’t turn it off.”
I believe this is a large part of the problem. The hustle culture has taken over and, while we say we want to use our passive income to fund months of sipping cocktails on our yachts in the Greek islands, we also proudly fill our calendars with meeting after meeting. We take on new projects in the interest of diversifying our revenue streams and we continue to set our alarms for 5 am to “slay the day.”
People revere those who are busy. Busy people are wanted and needed. Busy people are important and are building their empires one 100-hour-week at a time. They will rest when they sell their companies for billions of dollars. Until then, they hustle.
As New Yorkers, we have become so enamored with the glamorously elite club of hustlers that, unfortunately, many of us emulate their potentially unhealthy behaviors. Even worse, though, as the study from the University of Bergen suggests, workaholism can also mask unaddressed deeper issues.
Effectiveness of workaholism
In my late-night work session in my tiny New York apartment and so many other areas of my life, I hustle because hustling feels better than the emotions and insecurities that come up when I’m not working. Effective people (the people who shut the computer and get a good night’s sleep instead of staying up all night) intermittently pause and survey their current situation.
The good and bad news is that pressing the pause button on work can do two things:
- It can allow you to take time to see the bigger picture and to see ways to be more efficient and effective than previously thought.
- It can be terrifying to those of us who use workaholism as a way to escape our racing brains.
If I had taken a moment to stop in my work session and realize I was so tired that I was not doing good work, I would have seen that I should have stopped and shut the computer for the night. I’m sure subconsciously, I knew that, but I chose to continue working past what I knew to be effective. I chose to work for work’s sake.
Breaking through the mindless grind
My desire for hard work is a trait that is celebrated by our New York hustle culture. In essence, I often want to blindly trudge up a mountain when there is a valley route that is a much more efficient choice.
The phrase “working smarter rather than harder” comes to mind, but that is a gross oversimplification. Sure, it’s important to work smart rather than hard, but smart work only happens when one can let go of the need to mindlessly work to escape or mask other things.
Awareness of a potential issue is the first step to dealing with it. After my fence painting incident, I am fully aware that I sometimes jump feet first into the deep end of working without surveying the situation. If you’re like me and you tend to enjoy working a little too much, I encourage you to take a moment, however scary that moment may be, and assess the situation before you go all in.
So, how do you break out of the mindless grind? I’ve found that assessing the situation beforehand can always help. And if you happen to be feeling resistant to looking around? There might be other things in your life — scary, emotional things — you’re ignoring. For me, there were.
In conclusion, if you can take a moment to look at the issues you’re covering up with work, you can address them and then step out of the cycle of the mindless grind and into effective and meaningful productivity.
***Note: I’m not a doctor (yet), so I am not here to tell anyone how to cope with severe workaholism. If you feel that your need to hustle has reached a level that is not serving you, your health, or your relationships, I encourage you to seek professional help. Additionally, you might consider checking out Workaholics Anonymous by clicking this hyperlink.