Startups face a moment of judgment as employees abandon the culture of hustle

In March last year, Paul (name changed), 35, who worked at a popular e-commerce start-up, fell ill for the third time in a month. He suffered from high fever, chills and low blood pressure for several days. The pressure of increasing responsibilities at work was clearly hampering his daily life.

A few days later, Paul quit his job. In his 1,000-word resignation letter, he described how his seven-year stint at the company had led to burnout. He blamed the founders for setting unreasonable goals and working hours. “I chose to be honest with the founders because they created the problem in the first place,” he said. Your story.

Paul’s experience is not isolated. Several employees of Indian startups work in high-pressure environments and have to follow the unwritten rule of long working hours. Bombay Shaving Society CEO Shantanu Deshpande recently put it into words in a LinkedIn post, suggesting younger employees need work 18 hours a daycausing outrage on social media.

Many employees, especially those working in start-ups, are now standing up to founders and toxic cultures and holding management to account. Whether it’s voicing concerns directly to the founders or sharing their experiences on social media, it looks like an uprising is in the works.

This marks a significant development in the fast-growing startup space that glorifies the hustle culture and often looks down on those who aren’t part of it. Founders, who were largely answerable only to their investors, are now increasingly scrutinized by their employees. Startups also run the risk of losing a crucial talent pool of employees. Is the industry changing?

Hustle for health

Bustle culture is not just an Indian phenomenon. Employees working in start-up companies around the world are expected to work long hours (even on weekends) and jump from meeting to meeting without interruption. Even taking time off is considered 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, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week: 72 hours a week. Once endorsed by business tycoons like Alibaba founders Jack Ma and Richard Liu, the practice has drawn criticism, particularly after a young employee of a Chinese shorts company died of a brain hemorrhage. after working a bank holiday week earlier this year.

Japan also boasts of its culture of overwork to exhaustion. In fact, the country coined the term karoshi‘, which literally means ‘death by overwork’.

In India, poor employee mental health costs employers around $14 billion annual absenteeism, reduced productivity and attrition, according to a recent Deloitte report.

“It’s an endless cycle of expectations,” says Ishita Datta, a Bengaluru-based psychologist. “Employees are overworked, exhausted and struggling to perform basic activities.” She adds that the number of her clients who have suffered from burnout has doubled over the past year.

Burnout comes in the form of the deteriorating health of young Indians. Heart attacks and cardiac arrests are on the rise among young Indians. India’s financial capital, Mumbai, witnessed a six-fold increase in heart attack-related deaths in the first six months of 2021, with stressful lifestyles being the main reason.

Change the standard

Several employees are now expressing their concerns. “The first step is to set foot on the ground”, explains another employee of the startup who did not wish to be identified. In his case, the CEO of the company refused to let him take a three-day break to visit his sick mother. “The founder equated free time with irresponsibility, which it certainly wasn’t,” he says. Eventually, after several honest email conversations with the founding team, he was able to take a break.

Some employees also benefit from company-wide town hall meetings. These aim to break conventional chains of command and allow even the most junior workers a voice.

“Employees are dropping the filter and asking questions like why they have to work weekends,” says Satyajit Menon, chief of staff at a healthcare company. Innovaccer. He notes that although smaller organizations have a smaller workforce, employees are increasingly demanding that overtime and paid vacation policies be defined in contracts.

“When scaling, everyone in the business wants to win together and you would find people building and operating at the same time. In situations like this, stress levels and work pressure get into all the teams,” he adds.

Some are taking to social media to voice their concerns.

Recently, Pristyne Care CEO Harsimarbir Singh listed some of the company’s controversial interview practices in a now-deleted LinkedIn post. This included scheduling in-person interviews at night and asking applicants from remote stations to show up the next day, which several netizens found too toxic, and many took to Twitter to share their own experiences.

“Working long hours definitely gives you speed. We’ve seen that with the 996 culture in China. But it doesn’t necessarily give you speed. Also, employee burnout is corrosive,” Tweeter Lily.

Solve the problem

Vivek Jayaraman, People Success Officer at SaaS company Leanpitch, says founders are realizing the endemic problem of toxic workplace culture. “There’s no way to say the hustle culture is going to fade, but we can expect founders to make workplaces employee-friendly,” he says. However, he thinks progress will be slow and uncertain.

Ishita also thinks it’s important to humanize the workplace. She says HR managers now have a bigger role to play and founders need to ensure that a dedicated HR professional is employed to handle all of these issues.

“Since we recently returned to the workplace, we have been on a mission to reintegrate and refresh for the people (who have grown with us, albeit remotely over the past two years), our fundamentals, our values ​​and the foundation on which our success has been built,” says Satyajit of Innovaccer, who manages an employee base of more than 1,500 people worldwide.

Although the culture of agitation is unlikely to disappear, it is clear that employees will no longer settle for toxic practices.

(The story has been updated to correct a typo)

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