Oct17

Tales Of Silicon Valley Burnout

How much work is too much? What about in Silicon Valley? Do the same beliefs apply?

One of the strange paradoxes of the modern economy is the simultaneous emphasis on growth and work-life balance. This is particularly true when coming from Silicon Valley, where scalability and growth are believed in with a near-religious fanatical degree. In fact, part of the myth-making of Silicon Valley is that the long hours, the grueling expectations and the all-hands-on-deck mentality contributes to an all-encompassing “company culture” that creates success. The question remains: is that actually true? And is it good for workers?   

The Wild and Wacky World of Startups

As the tech era continues on, the all-hard-work, all-the-time ethos that has dominated the startup world is starting to show signs of being a fallacy. Many high profile people located at the elite levels of the startup economy are pointing out the futility of expecting the best from workers at all hours of the day. It is both unsustainable and bad for society.

The first major tale of Silicon Valley overwork came from a high profile New York Times expose last year, which detailed the grueling company culture of Amazon. Writing in response to that piece, billionaire Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz wrote a public post on Medium detailing what he’s learned from his work ethic over his careers. As someone who was instrumental in founding one of the companies that is most emblematic of the internet era, his decision to bring attention to this problem means a lot.

He writes, “The research is clear: beyond ~40–50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative. We have also demonstrated that though you can get more output for a few weeks during “crunch time” you still ultimately pay for it later when people inevitably need to recover. If you try to sustain crunch time for longer than that, you are merely creating the illusion of increased velocity. This is true at multiple levels of abstraction: the hours worked per week, the number of consecutive minutes of focus vs. rest time in a given session, and the amount of vacation days you take in a year.

Work is Work

While it’s positive that high profile stories and people in the tech world are drawing attention to this issue, lip service is not enough. As one TechCrunch contributor put it, “Pointing fingers at the most extreme examples of white-collar sweatshops will change nothing. Incremental ‘improvements’ will change nothing. Reading lots of aspirational articles about perks and work flexibility to demonstrate ‘great culture” will change nothing.”

How To Prevent Employee Burnout

So what will make change and tackle the damaging idea that humans can and should devote the majority of their life to hard work? The first is being honest about the mental health problems that can be suppressed or even caused by an extreme work ethic. These need to be taken just as seriously as any other health issue. Managers should be on the lookout for team members that seem to be struggling mentally, and encourage them to take time off or visit a doctor if necessary.

Implement Healthy Habits

Providing ways for employees to integrate healthy habits into their working lives, via gym subsidies, healthy food, standing desks and on site mental health checks is also a good way to encourage healthy habits. However, providing these things is not enough. It needs to be embedded into the company culture that making time for mental and physical health will be, over time, better for the workers and thus the company as a whole.

Address Company-Wide Changes

The next major step is modelling from the top. If HR departments insist to workers that they are encouraged to take their full vacation time, but employees don’t see their bosses and company heads doing the same, it’s unlikely they will feel empowered to do so. Time off can’t just be offered; it has to be actively encouraged. Whether it’s in the form of longer chunks of time off, or shorter breaks more frequently, research points to the restorative power of time off and away from the responsibilities of work.

The truth is that Silicon Valley can still be Silicon Valley without workers who are working themselves to the brink of exhaustion. But it’s going to require changing the culture of the valley as a whole, not just one company at a time.

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