Colloquialisms about “sweatshops” and being “worked to the bone” by an employer are, of course, hyperbolic if taken anywhere near literally, at least in the United States, which has a robust set of laws and regulations aimed at preventing the exploitation of workers.
Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the cultures of many companies tacitly demand a level of commitment and dedication that leaves their employees feeling burned out, overworked, and even taken advantage of.
Ironically, it’s often white-collar and highly paid professionals who suffer under this culture as opposed to low-wage workers, who probably first come to mind when one thinks of a true sweatshop.
The Trouble with Being ‘Always On’
And that culture is expanding, according to Bryan Lufkin in an article for BBC Worklife, due in part to the growing use of telecommunications tools that facilitate an “always-on” mentality to work and in part to a kind of cult of overwork, driven by admiration for entrepreneurialism and hard work that pays off.
“New studies show that workers around the world are putting in an average of 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime per week—up from 7.3 hours just a year ago,” Lufkin writes. “Co-working spaces are filled with posters urging us to ‘rise and grind’ or ‘hustle harder’. Billionaire tech entrepreneurs advocate sacrificing sleep so that people can ‘change the world’. And since the pandemic hit, our work weeks have gotten longer; we send emails and Slack messages at midnight as boundaries between our personal and professional lives dissolve.”
Toxic Cultures Impact Younger Workers
Lufkin also notes how the combination of growing student debt, lower salaries, and rising home costs means that younger workers just entering the workforce are essentially thrust into a toxic culture of overwork from the beginning, not necessarily out of a desire to be the next Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk but simply out of a need to make ends meet.
For businesses, the culture of overwork isn’t necessarily a one-sided windfall. Sure, a culture that favors putting in long hours and striving to rise to the top can mean a boost in productivity, at least temporarily. But taken to extremes, such a culture will almost certainly result in widespread burnout, disengagement, and turnover. Companies need to be aware of the double-edged sword such a culture presents before jumping too quickly to embrace it.