Startups face a moment of reckoning as employees ditch the hustle culture
In March last year, 35-year-old Paul (name changed), who worked in a popular ecommerce startup, fell sick for the third time in a month. He suffered from high fever, shivers, and low blood pressure for several days. The pressure of mounting responsibilities at work was clearly impeding his daily life.
A few days later, Paul quit his job. In his 1,000-word resignation letter, he described how the seven-year-long stint at the company had led to burnout. He lay the blame on the founders for setting unreasonable targets and working hours. “I chose to be honest with the founders because they created the problem in the first place,” he tells YourStory.
Paul’s experience is hardly an isolated one. Several Indian startup employees work under high-pressure environments and are expected to follow the unwritten rule of long working hours.CEO Shantanu Deshpande recently put into words in a LinkedIn post, suggesting that young employees needed to work 18 hours a day, causing outrage on social media.
Many employees, especially those working in young companies, are now pushing back against toxic founders and cultures, and holding the top management to account. Right from voicing concerns directly to the founders to sharing their experiences on social media, looks like an uprising is in the works.
This marks an important development in the fast-growing startup space that glorifies hustle culture and often looks down on those who don't become a part of it. Founders, who were largely just answerable to their investors, are now increasingly facing scrutiny from their employees. Startups also face the risk of losing a crucial talent pool of employees. Is the industry undergoing a transformation?
Hustling for health
The hustle culture is not just an Indian phenomenon. Employees working in young companies across the world are expected to work long hours (even weekends), and jump from one meeting to the other without a break. Even taking time off is seen as a sign of laziness.
Take China, for example. Its tech industry follows the infamous ‘996’ work culture rule, which means working 12 hours a day—from 9 am to 9 pm—for six days a week: 72 hours per week. Once endorsed by business moguls like Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Richard Liu, the practice has attracted criticism, especially after a young employee of a Chinese short-video company died of brain haemorrhage after working through a week-long public holiday earlier this year.
Japan too lauds its culture of overworking to exhaustion. In fact, the country has coined the term ‘karoshi’, which literally means 'death by overwork'.
In India, poor mental health among employees costs employers around $14 billion annually in absenteeism, lower productivity, and attrition, according to a recent Deloitte report.
“It is an endless cycle of expectations,” says Ishita Datta, a Bengaluru-based psychologist. “Employees are overworked, burned out and struggle to perform basic activities.” She adds that the number of her clients who experienced burnout has doubled in the last year.
The burnout is presenting itself in the form of the deteriorating health of young Indians. Heart attacks and cardiac arrest are on the rise among Indian youth. India’s financial capital, Mumbai, witnessed a six-fold rise in deaths related to heart attacks in the first six months of 2021, with stressful lifestyles being the top reason.
Changing the norm
Several employees are now raising concerns. “The first step is to put your foot down,” says another startup employee who did not want to be identified. In his case, the company’s CEO refused to let him take a three-day break to visit his ailing mother. “The founder equated the time off with irresponsibility, which was certainly not the case,” he says. Eventually, after several honest conversations over email with the founding team, he was able to take the break.
Some employees are also making use of company-wide town hall meetings. These are intended to break conventional chains of command and allow even the junior-most workers to express themselves.
“Employees are ditching the filter and are asking questions like why they must work on weekends,” says Satyajit Menon, Chief of Staff at healthcare firm. He notes that although smaller organisations have a smaller workforce, employees are increasingly demanding policies regarding overtime and paid leaves to be laid down in contracts.
“When scaling, everyone in the company wants to win together and you would find people building and operating at the same time. In such situations, stress levels and work pressure happen to cut across all teams,” he adds.
Some are taking to social media to express their concerns.
Recently,CEO Harsimarbir Singh listed some of the company’s controversial interview practices in a now-deleted LinkedIn post. These included scheduling in-person interviews at night, and asking outstation candidates to show up the next day—which several netizens deemed too toxic, and many took to Twitter to share their own experiences.
“Working long hours definitely gets you speed. We’ve seen this with 996 culture in China. But it does not necessarily get you velocity. Also employee burnout is corrosive,” one tweet read.
Fixing the problem
Vivek Jayaraman, People Success Officer at SaaS firm Leanpitch, says that founders are becoming aware of the rampant problem of toxic workplace culture. “There’s no way to say the hustle culture will wear off, but we can expect founders to make workplaces to become employee-friendly,” he says. However, he believes progress will be slow and uncertain.
Ishita too thinks it’s important to humanise the workplace. She says that human resources managers now have a bigger role to play and founders must make sure a dedicated HR professional is employed to handle all such matters.
“Since we've returned to the workplace recently, we have been on a mission to reintegrate and refresh for folks (who grew with us albeit remotely in the last two years) our core principles, values, and the foundation on which our success was built,” says Innovaccer’s Satyajit who handles an employee base of over 1,500 globally.
Though there’s little chance the hustle culture will fade, it’s clear that employees will no longer settle for toxic practices.
(The story was updated to correct a typo)
Edited by Kanishk Singh