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The world of ‘toxic positivity’, ‘hustle culture’, and ‘burnout’

‘Toxic positivity’, ‘hustle culture’, and ‘burnout’ may just seem like trendy buzzwords on social media as of late, but they may be some of the reasons why you’re losing staff.

Operations Manager, Alex Louise sat down with Public Practice Accountant Meg Glencross, to discuss these issues, sharing personal experiences and insights on what these terms mean, their impact, and potential strategies businesses can take to promote employee support and retention.

Insight is defined as the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of someone or something. One of the best ways to gain real insight is to achieve this through personal experience, or, when that isn’t available, through actively listening to someone who has direct experience. I spoke to her about her experience of hustle culture and its effects on health, well-being, and happiness in the workplace.

An open conversation on ‘toxic positivity’, ‘hustle culture’ and ‘burnout’

Alex: As an avid user of TikTok and someone who has a passion for all things Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the phrase ‘hustle culture’ has reared its head several times. However, not having personal experience with this myself, I thought it best to find a succinct description:

‘Hustle culture is when a workplace environment places an intense focus on productivity, ambition, and success, with little regard for rest, self-care, or any sense of work-life balance.’

As the popular 2000s song goes, “Every day I’m hustling”- but in all seriousness, is hustle culture sustainable?

Meg: I used to buy into the idea that working myself to the bone, staying late most evenings, taking on new clients even when I’m at capacity, and still trying to find time to train staff was just part and parcel of corporate culture. I would wake up at night panicking or just be unable to fall asleep in the first place… But that was just having a job, right? As long as I pushed myself to the extreme, I’d receive that pat on the back, the promotion, the pay rise. The recognition and satisfaction that meant I was successful (recognition that also endorsed unhealthy work habits). Some people don’t receive that as a “reward” at the end.

It took me 10 years to realize this, but I was wrong – and I don’t admit that often!

All I got was a lot of exhaustion mixed with a dollop of imposter syndrome and anxiety – a recipe for disaster.

Alex: This is what is commonly known as ‘burnout’, which can be both complete physical and/or mental exhaustion. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even recognized it as a phenomenon specifically linked to work.

You can excel in your career and simultaneously be experiencing this level of exhaustion.

As The Editors say, “all sparks will burn out in the end” – How familiar were you with burnout before being directly affected by it?

Meg: It wasn’t something I was overly familiar with until I started experiencing it personally. I’d heard of it but didn’t appreciate the level of impact it could have on my life. I feel like most professionals I speak with, post-COVID, have had some experience with burnout.

For me, burnout made me feel like a shell of myself. I struggled with my focus and concentration, I couldn’t be present in conversations and found it immensely hard to connect with family and friends, which furthered the feeling of isolation. It made me feel useless and like a failure.

I distinctly remember bursting into tears in Tesco toward the end of 2021. All because I could not remember a single thing on my shopping list. It was only two items, but this was the sixth or seventh time this had happened in the past two months. From the outside, it may seem silly, but at the time, this small task was mammoth-sized because I was so overloaded at work, that I didn’t have the capacity for anything else.

Alex: How did you navigate this and begin to manage your way out of burnout?

Meg: After eight months of hoping those feelings would go away ‘naturally’ and dissipate, I realised I needed (and was lucky enough) to speak to a professional.

Therapy provided some eye-opening insights into why I experienced burnout. It helped me set boundaries, reminded me to celebrate the small successes and reflect on my accomplishments, not my ‘failures,’ that day. I continue to implement what I have learned, mindful of what I need to maintain positive mental well-being. The way I worked before was unsustainable, and eventually, I would have faltered; COVID just brought burnout forward a few years.

Alex: It’s great that you were able to seek help for your burnout, but should the agency be on the employee or the employer? Companies must understand the impact that hustle culture has on their staff and what they can do to help prevent burnout. We are still seeing the impact of the “Great Resignation,” which started during COVID-19, with burnout and lack of support being cited as one of the reasons people were leaving their jobs.

Some businesses resort to toxic positivity as an easy but unintentional solution to burnout and mental health issues. However, this resolution can often be another reason for staff turnover. Businesses look to treat the symptom and not the problem.

If your employees start echoing Britney Spears with “you’re toxic, and I’m slipping under,” it might be time to reassess your approach. So, how can companies retain their staff while avoiding toxic positivity?

Meg: I’ve heard this phrase before, but I’m not familiar with its meaning.

Alex: Toxic positivity refers to someone trying to be extremely positive, as such to negate and/or undermine the very real negative emotions someone might be experiencing. Life is hard sometimes, and attempting to fix someone’s perspective through unrealistic positivity can often lead to further distress. The phrase ‘Keep calm and carry on’ comes to mind.

Organizational psychologist Caitlin Collins sums up why someone may tend to use toxic positivity:

When someone displays toxic positivity, they are avoiding a difficult situation by distorting reality to minimize discomfort.

While I understand how difficult discussions around burnout and mental health can be uncomfortable, telling your employees to be positive and ‘look on the bright side’ will leave them feeling unheard and unsatisfied. Unsure of how to respond to toxic positivity.

You might be reading this and wondering why any of this matters for your business. Because self-care doesn’t stop hard work.

There are several stats from  Forbes on wellness and employee engagement that prove this point. The one that stood out to me was:

“89% of workers at companies that support well-being initiatives are more likely to recommend their company as a good workplace.”

A very wise woman I know, Lesley Louise, People Operations Manager (my mother, for those that don’t know), told me, “you have to treat your employees like your customers.”

If you look after your customers, they will market your product for you! Employees who feel seen and heard feel more valued. If they are given a chance to get better in the way that works for them, they are more likely to come back to the company raring to go. A recent report on the evolution of work and the value of an employee-first culture looks into a concept known as “psychological safety” and the effects this has on productivity and job satisfaction.

Meg: Exactly. Don’t get me wrong, I still work hard, I’m passionate and care about my career. But I don’t let it define me or consume me. And more importantly, I don’t let it compromise my health or happiness.

“I don’t hustle. I live.”

Alex: Thank you, Meg, for sharing your experiences with us. I’m sure many others can resonate with this.

So what can you do about toxic positivity, hustle culture, and burnout in the workplace?

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Create (or update) the company’s Mental Health Policy (here is a link to a useful template)
  • Train staff members in mental health first aid.
  • Promote non-judgemental and active listening. Provide the necessary training to line managers and senior staff, so they can best support their team.
  • Provide a forum for your employees to express their emotions and empower them to be honest. This could be achieved through anonymous feedback channels, like suggestion boxes or digital surveys, which encourage more candid responses.
  • Rather than offer solutions, ask how you can help and signpost your staff to the support available, internally or externally. This could be support provided within your employee medical cover or directing them to local/online resources.
  • Conduct mental health awareness workshops that help staff with their mental health. One popular example is offering a workshop on mindfulness so employees know how to practice this.
  • Offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). EAP generally include assessments, short-term counselling, and referral services for employees
  • Get managers to engage in regular check-ins to assess work-related stress levels. At Harvey John, we have 121 sessions weekly for our staff. This allows staff to express and reflect on their week.
  • Encourage time off and well-being days.
  • Implement flexible work arrangements where possible

Whether you’re an employer looking to find out how others are handling these issues or a candidate who wants to find a company that values the well-being of their staff, then don’t be afraid to contact one of our team.

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