Tired and depressed woman at her workplace, hustle-and-grind concept

Do the hustle: unrelenting startup culture is burning out young employees

Looking for a #superstar biz dev person who can hustle their way into a FTSE 250 boardroom.”

Wanted: dev genius who’s got the grind to keep going when the going gets tough.”

Okay, so these aren’t real job postings on a recruitment site. But were you able to tell the difference? The wording is eerily familiar to anyone in the startup world – the glorification of the grind, the headlining of the hustle. Entrepreneurial culture is obsessed with going hard and not going home. This work ethic might initially seem admirable – but at its core it’s rooted in a toxic approach to the world of work which is taking its toll on staff at all levels of the business.

>See also: Is a four day working week really a boon for productivity and staff wellbeing?

In our own recent research, we spoke to 2,200 business owners across Europe. What we found was alarming – almost one in three said that they or their staff have taken leave for mental health reasons, while almost half said that lack of time was detrimental to their or their employees’ personal health.

What’s ironic is that a significant majority of SMB owners were motivated by the search for a better work-life balance when starting their business, but only half believe they’ve actually achieved this – while over 20pc now regret their entrepreneurial endeavours.

How can startups avoid the hustle-and-grind while creating a productive and happy working culture?

The curse of ‘always-on’ customer service

Startups often differentiate on customer service – whether it’s a fintech personally delivering a new card to a hapless festival-goer who’s managed to lose theirs just before the big day, or a SaaS newcomer working through the night to ensure their innovative application delivers for their key enterprise client in time for a big product launch.

This high-touch approach is understandable. The personalised service of a startup can provide a powerful contrast to dealing with monolithic corporates, and entrepreneurs justifiably want to delight their early customers and create “viral” momentum. Yet 40pc of them also admit that the ever-escalating demands of customers cost them time which could have been spent addressing other important issues.

The challenge with customer service is that there’s almost unlimited scope for the demands of clients to keep growing – and as your business grows and acquires more customers, so do these demands. This leaves your employees ever-more exposed to the grind of meeting expectations.

>See also: One out of three employees taking time out due to mental health

How to overcome hustle-and-grind

A hint comes from the SMB owners themselves, who largely believe that automated processes could provide the biggest help to their business. The “technology-as-universal-panacea” narrative is well-trodden territory, yet it’s hard to overstate the value of powerful software for one key reason: it can scale with ease, addressing the growing demands of multiple customers much more seamlessly than individual employees can. With half of all SMB owners naming administrative tasks as their biggest time wasters, there’s clearly some low-hanging fruit involved in customer service which can be automated away – whether that’s responding to basic queries or booking meetings.

The importance of mental health

Technological solutions can help free up people’s time, and this is vital for evading the business logic of hustle-and-grind. But this phenomenon isn’t just operational – it also has strong cultural foundations. Ultimately, to be successful, startups need their employees to perform at a high level, but doing so without sacrificing energy, time and sanity on the altar of #Hustle is a tough balancing act.

The hustle-and-grind culture works by motivating employees through guilt and/or fear, underpinned by the notion that there’s always more you could be doing to drive the business forward. It is rooted in a need to constantly prove yourself and your value to the company, and in the corresponding suspicion that you might not be “good enough”. It is this sense of insecurity that can drive people to stay at work during what should be family or holiday time.

To combat this problematic phenomenon, startups need to create a different kind of culture, rooted in different emotions and values. Fear and guilt must be replaced with positive, forward-looking drivers. People need to feel adequate and valued as they are, not pressured into relentlessly proving their worth.

Entrepreneurs can create this change by simply opening up. Sharing their own values, goals, and even their fears can transform the tone of their business, creating space for other employees to be vulnerable and escape from the competitiveness of hustle-and-grind. The concept of psychological safety is useful here – the idea that people should be free to bring their full, authentic selves to work without fear of censure or condemnation.

Changing how and why you work

To overcome hustle-and-grind culture and create a healthier way of working, startups need to first attack the necessity for this kind of hard-driving approach. This is about becoming more productive, ensuring that your employees aren’t wasting valuable time on mundane tasks. Customer service, as a key differentiating factor for many startups, is a great place to start – offering many administrative tasks which can be automated.

Once you have reduced the need for your employees to be “always-on”, you can then get to the emotional root of hustle-and-grind. By nurturing a more accepting culture, you give people permission to abstain from the rat race while still working hard and accelerating towards their goals.

Brigid Charmant is senior area vice president, emerging, small and medium business UKI, Salesforce

Further reading on mental health

How can businesses improve the mental health and wellbeing of staff?

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