HUSTLE CULTURE: Working Yourself To Death

I’ll admit. I had to wait a while to write this article to emotionally distance myself from it, dig into it, and evaluate it. I don’t know any better than Hustle Culture and anyone who has worked with me can vouch for that. I felt offended – at first – that working hard was being lampooned. Then I learned the most valuable lesson of my adult life.

Hustle. Burnout. Take A Day Off. Breaking News. Hustle. Burnout. Cry. Call from Work. Hustle. Burnout. Stress. Doctor. Pills. Hustle. Cry. Burnout.

sound familiar?

While there is no dictionary definition of Hustle Culture, it’s essentially this – You work every possible second you can, mental health and personal relationships be damned, to be successful, wealthy, and respected. Also known as a workaholic.

You know what is in the dictionary? Ergomania.

Medical Definition of ergomania

excessive devotion to work especially as a symptom of mental illness

(Not to be confused with Ergomania related to rowing)

Hustle Culture is an actual mental illness??

It’s the exact opposite of the Work/Life Balance mantra. We live the hustle and dream the balance.

In Japan, it’s got another, more sinister term – Karoshi. It literally translates to “overwork death”.

In 2016, according to the World Health Organization, overwork lead to 745,000 deaths. That’s the size of Seattle.

It’s almost a 30% increase from 2000. Imagine how high it might be now with the pandemic stressors added in?

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the World Health Organization. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death”.

Working 55 or more hours per week means:

You could have a silent version of ischemic heart disease right now and be a walking heart attack waiting to happen.

The WHO says that 9% of people worldwide are working longer hours than a 40-hour workweek. Working from home, love it or hate it, isn’t helping.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,“ said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work. In addition, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours. No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.”

I hear this often from people I talk with in the news industry. Whether they are born and bred workaholics or are forced and guilted into it, it’s a real problem. Staffing shortages mean more newscasts to fill with producers. That leads to producers working longer shifts and sometimes producing an evening newscast then getting called in to produce a morning newscast, leaving little sleep in between shifts.

I mean look at this picture. I was actually bragging that I got called in AS THE NEWS DIRECTOR to produce the morning news on New Year’s Day because the producer, who had been on vacation leading up to it, called in “sick”. There was no other option because of holiday staffing.

Happy New Year, 2020

Reporters are being asked to do their broadcast reporting and then post to all kinds of social media and “Don’t forget your web story!” shouts the digital producer as they are getting ready to go home after a 10 hour day.

Managers, bogged down with technical configurations for working from home, the random COVID case that makes its way into the newsroom causing a ripple, interviews with candidates who want more money, dealing with ethical dilemmas, keeping journalism in the news, and then stuff they have to take home with them to get the job done – although the job is never done.


Of all my demons, this is the one that will haunt me in my workaholic life and upbringing.

In 2008, my mom had knee replacement surgery on a Thursday. I spoke to her Wednesday night at length. She was so excited to be able to walk again without pain. She was in St. Louis, I was in Las Vegas, and she had long-shuttered the notice that I need to be there “unless you have a surgeon’s degree I don’t about.”

Friday there were some “hiccups” in her recovery. Tests being done. “Don’t worry”, she said, ironic because I get my worry directly from her bloodline.

Saturday. Blood clots. Rehab was halted and blood thinners given. Nobody was panicked (except for me). I called my mom and I did in fact have a surgeon’s degree she didn’t know about. She ordered me to stay in Las Vegas.

Sunday not much progress.

Monday at work – I felt it. The gut feeling of “Go home”. It stuck to me like honey and made me sick. I called the person I always called when I felt this way – my mom. She said, “Adam needs you at work. I am going to be fine. Stop worrying. I’ll need you in a few weeks when I’m home and rehabbing and you’ll be caught up on the 11 pm launch project. I have everything I need here.” I tried to argue with her, but I didn’t know how to explain my bad feeling without scaring her.

Wednesday I got the “It’s life or death” call from my sister that I knew would come. but my mom was unaware. I told my sister to tell mom I was coming and she was reluctant because that would scare my mom. I told her I would call every nurse’s station in the damn hospital to tell my mother her baby girl was coming home. She finally agreed to tell her, but spin it better than “life or death”.

By the time I got to the hospital my mom was intubated. I never got to speak with her again (though I did keep lip gloss on her lips despite Nasty Nurse telling me not to do that).

She died the next night, surrounded by her family.

I will never forgive myself for not listening to my gut and for letting a workaholic ethic take over.


When I first started seeing the posts about “Stop glorifying Hustle Culture”, I rolled my tired and overworked eyes. We SHOULD work hard. That’s what my dad did. What grandpa did. What my mom did. What my friends did.

Then I took a staunch look back at my life. I was always praised as a “hard worker”. People would say “You are the hardest-working person I know.” Then it would morph into “She works non-stop for no apparent reason other than that’s just who she is” or “I feel sorry for you with how much you work.”

One of the people who mentored me in this business years ago went on a “dream job” interview. This was around 1999. She called me from a payphone at the airport with an epiphany. The job interview had gone great. She was going to turn it down.

“WHAT??”, I said, sure this payphone was broken.

“They told me they loved my work. That it was great I was single because I’d be able to work any time of day or night. That I would be their superstar.”, she said.

Silence.. I was confused.

She went on, “I suddenly saw my life flash before my eyes. A workaholic being driven into the ground as the workhorse of a station. For what? Glory? I want to have a life and get married and have kids. This isn’t the world for me anymore. “

She was sure ahead of her time. She did go on to have a family and got a job outside of news and is living happily ever after news.

I went on to a career that took me from mountains to deserts to beaches to plains. Each job working harder than the next. Each relationship was soured by my devotion to my job. It became a joke that if I was to plan a day off or vacation, breaking news would happen. All too happily I canceled the vacation to accommodate.

Through the stress and pressure, I gained and lost the same 50 pounds over and over again. When I did work out I was always checking the phone. I started yoga because you were forced to leave the phone behind. Yet still, I managed to get a call right before class one day of someone quitting that ruined any chances of Namaste.

“I thought it was good being a hard worker. I thought being reliable was a benefit. When I got a “5” on a review for “always being available” under the “Reliability” column, I was ecstatic. I didn’t know that in itself was a mental health issue.”

Jennifer Hardy

I’ve done many surveys with journalists this past year in an effort to break down some walls between bosses and employees. To look behind the curtain. It was done on my own “free” time, Ergomania be damned.

Here’s what some of the employees in your local newsrooms are saying.

“I complain about the lack of pay, the stress, and the workload, but when I think about leaving the business, I feel lost. I truly can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“I got into journalism because I wanted to make a difference. My TV news career gave me some of those highs, but the demoralizing reality of this business has made me realize I can’t do it anymore. I’m tired and sad and angry and worn out and burned out. But I’m not a bad person. Really, I’m not. I just can’t do this anymore.”

“This is the only thing I’ve done for 20 years. I’m afraid to move on.”

“(Stop making me) feel guilty for trying to see my kids play sports or take part in school activities.

“It gives me anxiety whenever I have to call in sick. I always feel guilty and like my boss is going to make me come in anyway.”

No career is worth sacrificing your mental health and quality of life. Working in TV is an exciting job, yes, and in the right environment, people can go far. But being on television isn’t enough to have sleepless nights, constant illnesses, and worsening mental health. You have to do what’s best for you, and everything else in life will work itself out around it.”

“Your contract states managers can change your schedules at will.. but if they are not considering your family life/ health etc. you need to take care of you! Work does not and should not be your primary identity and define you. You and the skills you possess are worth more than the pathetic salary caps you are given!!”

Put family first before it’s too late. I got out of News, but not soon enough. I love news. But if the cost is too much: get out. My first TV job was in ‘89. Lost a marriage and 2 engagements working wacky times and crazy long hours. Now I live in a capital city: by myself. I envy the folks outside of TV who have long marriages. The adrenaline rush of News is unmatchable: but in the end, at least for me it took so much more than I gave. I love my News memories! But that’s all they are: decades of memories: and decades I didn’t build a marriage, couldn’t afford to create a nest egg on a single income (especially a News salary). Just don’t let News take over your life: take time to find someone who will tell you the the truth if the business is consuming your life. When you’re in the News cycle you can’t see if you’re getting in too deep, losing too much: and if you are: get out. I still love News. I always will. But News won’t love you back: family will. Keep your priorities straight. You’ll appreciate it down the line.”

I have dozens more of these types of comments.

Here’s what you need to do if you are prone to this:

  • Go to a cardiologist. You could have hidden heart dangers. Even if you are young. Do it.
  • Get your bloodwork done to see how your levels are. I would never have known my kidneys were malfunctioning if I hadn’t done this.
  • Get a therapist. Go weekly or monthly.


In the 24/7 cycle of news, adding in digital properties that require the attention of a newborn baby, it’s hard to ever actually unplug.

As I am now out of work, I have a life I didn’t know was possible. I sleep with the phone on silent – something a hard-working (yet mentally ill Ergomanic) journalist could never do. My sleep is peaceful, not anxiety-ridden. When I wake up I don’t dart to the laptop wondering what happened that is not being reported because of low staffing on the morning newscast. I don’t wake up to emails that tear down the work from the day before.

I take long, meandering walks with the dogs with nothing on my mind but their happiness. I wonder why I never did this before. I wonder IF I could have done this before. I wonder if I will be able to do it again when I am employed.

I always envied the people who could just disconnect. Who knew there might be weather developing, but went out of town anyways. Who knew we were short-staffed but it was their day off and they didn’t answer the phone.

Once there was a major malfunction at a station where I worked. It was preventing us from getting morning news on the air and we had a 5.5. hour block of news. I called my boss, as I had rushed in at the first call of trouble, and said, “Are you going to come in?”

He said, “No, sounds like you’ve got it covered.” He went back to sleep and came in right at his scheduled time. At the time I was baffled – but now I get it. He had the Ergomaniac handling it. We didn’t need two managers staring at the problem when one lunatic would suffice.

There is help if you are a workaholic. In my research, I found a website for Workaholics Anonymous.

They offer 20 questions for you to ask yourself. If you answer “Yes” t more than three, you might be a workaholic.

  1. Are you more drawn to your work or activity than close relationships, rest, etc.?
  2. Are there times when you are motivated and push through tasks when you don’t even want to and other times when you procrastinate and avoid them when you would prefer to get things done?
  3. Do you take work with you to bed? On weekends? On vacation?
  4. Are you more comfortable talking about your work than other topics?
  5. Do you pull all-nighters?
  6. Do you resent your work or the people at your workplace for imposing so many pressures on you?
  7. Do you avoid intimacy with others and/or yourself?
  8. Do you resist rest when tired and use stimulants to stay awake longer?
  9. Do you take on extra work or volunteer commitments because you are concerned that things won’t otherwise get done?
  10. Do you regularly underestimate how long something will take and then rush to complete it?
  11. Do you immerse yourself in activities to change how you feel or avoid grief, anxiety, and shame?
  12. Do you get impatient with people who have other priorities besides work?
  13. Are you afraid that if you don’t work hard all the time, you will lose your job or be a failure?
  14. Do you fear success, failure, criticism, burnout, financial insecurity, or not having enough time?
  15. Do you try to multitask to get more done?
  16. Do you get irritated when people ask you to stop doing what you’re doing in order to do something else?
  17. Have your long hours caused injury to your health or relationships?
  18. Do you think about work or other tasks while driving, conversing, falling asleep, or sleeping?
  19. Do you feel agitated when you are idle and/or hopeless that you’ll ever find balance?
  20. Do you feel like a slave to your email, texts, or other technology?

This group even has a convention coming up!


Herein lies the problem – you don’t work alone. You’ve got people above you, beside you, and below you with different work ethics (and mental illnesses, apparently).

Let’s assume you are a normal, hard-working person who wants to put in a good 40 hours a week, can be available from time to time in emergencies, and wants to be a team player while still having a work/life balance.

Workaholics think you are “lazy” when you say “No” to a Saturday work shift. Even if it’s your kid’s graduation day. They don’t understand why you don’t pick up the phone at 9 pm on a Tuesday. They are 2 hours into their workday when you stroll in with coffee and they make a snide comment, “Nice of you to join us” when you arrive to work ON TIME.

The actual lazy people give you a bad name because they say no to everything. They mail everything in while you are cranking it out. They know you’ll take up whatever slack they lay down. They parlay a lunch break into a 3-hour break. Leaving you to either groan about it or “tattle”.

Raise your hand if you’ve been told:

  • “Suck it up”
  • “That’s the job.”
  • “Maybe you aren’t cut out for this business.”
  • “That’s why you get a bigger paycheck.”
  • “You are replaceable if you don’t like this job.”
  • “Sorry to wake you up but.. “
  • “Sorry to call you on your off day but.. “

Then there’s also the collateral stress of a workplace. Maybe I’m not stressed but 3 people around me are having breakdowns and it’s now impacting my mental health. I’m getting shrapnel of the issue that isn’t being dealt with by someone who can actually help.

We’ve got to work at company levels to know the difference between a burned-out GOOD employee and a lazy employee riding the coattails and crying “anxiety” every time a task is assigned. We’ve got to have tools to help these people other than a paper EAP form. We’ve got to go beyond “How are you?”, and ask, “No REALLY, how are you?”. I can tell you I’ve buried depression in workloads for years. Bosses saw a hard worker. I saw sadness and a life without color in it.

We can’t belittle anyone stating that they are burned out, depressed, anxious, or mentally unhealthy. What I learned when my mom died is that when presented with extreme emotions, like REALLY hard ones, I feel like I’m about to cry – and then I throw up instead. One work project had me so in knots and working so many hours that I regularly had to step outside to throw up. I lost my voice it was so bad. I reached out for help – silence. We can’t just silently nod and say “Ok! Back to work!” when someone confides something that is most likely embarrassing for them to admit.

How hard is it to say, “What can I do to help/relieve stress/make it better?”


If you are terrible with boundaries, you’ve got to work on it. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Turn off the phone (and I mean let people know you’ve turned off your phone if you are someone who always answers or else they might do a “welfare check” on you). Go away for a weekend if you don’t need to go away for a weekend.

This comes to an eternal question – Can you say “No”?


I once had a meeting dropped on a Sunday night. It was a religious holiday for me and I had a church service to attend. I know someone else on the call was out of town that weekend taking a much-needed break for work/life balance. We both had to re-adjust our plans (for a phone call that could have been an e-mail) and we both wondered “Can we say No?”. The time of the call kept changing too, leaving us a slave to email all weekend.

We were scared to say “No”.

“No” is defiant. It’s insubordinate. It’s grounds for termination in some cases. It gets you written up. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth of the boss at BEST.

I found this list on Indeed of ways to politely say “No”. Use at your own discretion.

I think it’s also a good practice during the hiring process to discuss this. When the station has an “all hands on deck” policy for hurricane coverage, is that enforced? What are the consequences if you don’t stay? What are the rules with family being allowed in? If the station has mandatory quarterly meetings at 2 pm and you work overnights, are you exempt? What is the latitude for working at home if a child is sick and daycare won’t let them in?

Also, present your boundaries. Tell them you coach soccer on Sundays and you are generally not available. Tell them you’ll work your tail off 9-6 but you appreciate family time at night so you’d prefer to not get calls barring emergencies.

I am hoping when I come off this hiatus I am a better worker because I am a better enjoyer of life. I hope my newfound freedom (Heck I’ve taken 3 breaks during this article alone to walk the dog, then brush the dog, then to give myself a facial mask) keeps pushing me to do better things when I do focus on work.

I hope bosses understand their people are dying in front of them, slowly, one more “small task” at a time.

I hope employees understand it’s okay to talk about your mental health until you find someone who will listen.

I hope Hustle Culture becomes a thing we used to do and I hope I can be a person to help put it in the past.

Our lives depend on it.

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