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Why having a ‘work family’ is actually hustle culture at its worst

Continuing to push the idea everyone is one big happy family hurts all your employees.

Why having a ‘work family’ is actually hustle culture at its worst
[Source images: scyther5/iStock]

Hustle culture and its celebration of never-ending work have undermined productivity for too long. I cringe at mantras like “rise and grind,” “girl boss,” and “go hard or go home” that we feel forced to follow to prove our value and rise to the cultural challenge. How about taking a relaxing nature hike or spending time with family? Business leaders should focus on thinking about how we can give people the time and space to live their lives. The privilege of having time to yourself shouldn’t be the dominion of the wealthy or those in positions of power.

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Moreover, at the heart of hustle culture may be that those at the top don’t want their employees to have a life outside of work because they have the warped view this will make workers inferior at their jobs. Even the very design of the “cool company” office space, with snacks and ping pong, keeps workers at work. When I hear a leader tell their employees, “We’re a family,” my mind immediately goes to, “you’re not respecting your workers’ boundaries.”

We hear terms like “work spouses” and “work moms,” which imply that employees should fall into traditional familial roles in the workplace. If you’re mothering toddlers at home, do you really want or need to be mothering people at the office? Shouldn’t your emotional labor be reserved for those who truly can’t take care of themselves, such as those who have yet to be potty trained? If you’re the “work mom” or “work spouse,” are you simply enabling colleagues to shirk responsibility for handling their own emotions or learning to effectively manage their own conflicts?

Equating work relationships with familial relationships dangerously blurs the lines between professional and personal boundaries. Family should love you back with unconditional love, but unfortunately, work and your boss doesn’t always extend the same warmth.

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When you’re part of a family, you can make a big mistake without fear of getting fired. When you’re part of a family, your value isn’t measured by how much you produce. And when you’re part of a family, you’re not penalized for caretaking duties or judged for binging a new series because you need a mental break.

If we’re lucky, families last a lifetime. Our working roles do not. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average tenure of an employee today is about four years. Our workplaces have drastically changed since after the Industrial Revolution. By the 1960s, half of the private sector workforce had pensions. A 2016 Associated Press poll finds that more than 40% of Baby Boomers stayed with their employer for more than 20 years. Employees lived out various life phases, such as marriage, having babies, and illnesses, all within the same company. Today, this is not the case. Before, when you stayed at a workplace for more than 20 years, an employee could feel confident their time with a company was well spent and would equate to a comfortable retirement. Only in this sort of financially trusting relationship could leaders maybe refer to their employees as families. After all, many workers had a job for life and didn’t feel like their workdays dragged into the weekend due to the presence of technology.

Today, companies that abide by a “hustle culture,” where entire teams are “families,” often lack the boundaries that allow for workers to tend to their real family and personal responsibilities. In this culture, it’s okay for a colleague to ask you to work on a last-minute pitch on a Friday night because you’re doing it for your “work fam.” You’re expected to take that business trip and miss your son’s big baseball game because work is your family, too. Moreover, you’re pushed to accept a furlough indefinitely for the unity of your family, as if one of the main reasons for employment isn’t to collect a paycheck. And you’re an indispensable part of the team, until you become too burned out to execute tasks at an unsustainable level, after which your position may be cut entirely.

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Therefore, instead of leaders calling their teams “families” and blurring healthy work–life boundaries. How about simply referring to them as “your team?” And to retain your team, give them the benefits they need to thrive and feel motivated to do their best work. A few starter ideas include paid medical leave, no-email policies on weekends, and subsidized child care. Finally, adjust your view so that you acknowledge that the office, or virtual collaboration space, isn’t your employees’ real home; they are, in fact, multidimensional human beings with relationships, passions, and responsibilities that are not connected to their job titles.

Calling work teams families in the context of an “always on” culture may be the ultimate gaslighting, preventing employees from having the permission to be full human beings with wants and needs, which have no connection to their work. The antidote is not for leaders to say how much they care for their teams with words but to show them with actions. This provides them with the freedom (and personal boundaries) to have a life outside of the office and to be well-rounded humans.


Kiran Rai is cofounder and creative director of Consciously Unbiased, a grassroots movement and organization advancing diversity in the workplace. Prior to launching Consciously Unbiased, Kiran launched her own fashion line and also held roles at Disney and Gap.

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