Running On Empty: Getting Crushed By The Crush-It Culture

“Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week." -- Elon Musk

Those damned Protestants and their work ethic. Thanks to them, unless you’re willing to put in a zillion hours a week, you’re just a speed bump on the road to all that is good in the world. Take Mr. Musk, for example. If you happen to work at Tesla, or SpaceX, or the Boring Company, he has figured out  what your average work week should be, according to his quote in The Telegraph: It "varies per person, but about 80 sustained, peaking above 100 at times. Pain level increases exponentially above 80.”

“Pain level increases exponentially above 8o”? WTF, Mr. Musk!

But he’s not alone. Google famously built its Mountainview campus so employees never had to go home. Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma calls the intense work culture at his company a “huge blessing.” He calls it the “996” work schedule, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six. That’s 72 hours, if you’re counting. But even that wouldn’t cut it if you work for Elon Musk. You’d be a deadbeat.



This is the crush-it culture, where long hours equate to dedication and, by extension, success. No pain, no gain.

We spend lots of time talking about the gain,  so let me spend just one column talking about the pain. Pain such as mental illness, severe depression, long-term disabilities and strokes. People who overwork are more likely to overeat, smoke, drink excessively and develop other self-destructive habits.

You’re not changing the world. You’re shortening your life. The Japanese call it karoshi: death by overwork.

Like so many things, this is another unintended consequence of a digitally mediated culture. Digital speeds everything up. But our bodies and brains aren’t digital. They burn out if they move too fast -- or too long.

Overwork as a sign of superior personal value is a fairly new concept in the span of human history. It came from the Puritans who settled in New England. They believed that those who worked hard at their professions were those chosen to get into heaven. The more wealth you amassed from your work, the more evidence there was that you were one of the chosen.

Lately, the creeping capitalist culture of overworking has most firmly embedded itself in the tech industry. There, the number of hours you work has become a proxy of your own worth. A twisted type of machismo has evolved and has trapped us all into thinking that an hour not spent at our jobs is an hour wasted. We are looked down upon for wanting some type of balance in our lives.

Unfortunately for the Musks and Mas and other modern-day taskmasters, biology just doesn’t support those prolonged work schedules.

First, our brains need rest. Back in the 18th century ,when those Puritans proved their worth through work, earning a living was usually a physical endeavor. The load of overwork was spread among the fairly simple mechanical machinery of our own bodies. Muscles got sore. Joints ached. But they recovered.

The brain is a much more complex beast. When it gets overworked, it loses its executive ability to focus on the task at hand. When your work takes place on a desktop or laptop where there are unlimited diversions just a click away, you suddenly find yourself 45 minutes into an unplanned YouTube marathon or scrolling through your Facebook feed. It becomes a downward spiral that benefits no one.

An overworked mind also loses its ability to settle down in the evening so you can get an adequate amount of sleep. When your co-workers start boasting of being able to function on just three or four hours of sleep -- they are lying. They are lying to you, but worse, they are lying to themselves.

Very few of us can function adequately on less than seven or eight hours of sleep. For the rest of us, the negative effects start to accumulate.

One study found that sleep deprivation has the same impact as drinking too much. Those who were getting fewer than seven hours of sleep fared the same or worse on a cognitive test as those who had a 0.05% blood alcohol level. The legal limit in most states is 0.08%.

Finally, in an essay on Medium, Rachel Thomas points out that the crush-it culture is discriminatory. People with  a disability or chronic illness simply have fewer hours in the day to devote to work. They need time for medical support and usually require more sleep.

In an industry like tech, where there is an unhealthy focus on the number of hours worked, these workers -- whom Thomas says makes up at least 30% of the total workforce -- are shut out.

The crush-it culture is toxic. The science simply doesn’t support it. The only ones evangelizing it are those that directly benefit from this modernized version of feudalism.  It’s time to call bullshit on them.
2 comments about "Running On Empty: Getting Crushed By The Crush-It Culture".
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  1. Phillip Nones from Mullin/Ashley Associates, Inc., November 19, 2019 at 4:02 p.m.

    This isn't limited to the tech industry -- and it isn't just the "Protestant work ethic," either.

    Check out this article (Toyota):

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 19, 2019 at 7:56 p.m.

    Chinese manufacturing = the 6-12-12 ethic which is working 6 days a week, 12 hours/day, 12/mo/yr. Cheap labor, heavy schedule. Does anyone really think manufacturing is going to return to the US when they know no one, people who love their $10 shirts won't do it, in the US would work that schedule for $80/wk? Indentured servitude is not a stranger to the US and is still used e.g. chicken rendering plants or strawberry farms or housekeepers. Meanwhile, there are oligopolists who oppose the minimum wage so they can pay less and workers can work longer. The problems you outline bleed into every life, into every level of industry. Why do you think is is and what do you think we can and should do about it ?

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