I remember the first time I worked a 100-hour week. I was a few years out of college, in my first job as a magazine assistant, and even though I was already immersed in a workplace culture that required absolute dedication, when I worked that first hundred hour week I felt like I had really accomplished something. Never mind that I broke down crying in the bathroom a few times or hadn’t had time to eat in days or couldn’t remember when I had last seen my roommates. At the end of that week, I felt like I had finally arrived.
What I didn’t anticipate was that my first hundred hour work week would eventually lead to another...and another...and another. Once my phone synced to my work email and I was promoted a few times, the expectation became that I would never not be working. The usual refrain I’d hear from colleagues was “when do you sleep?” The truth is, I didn’t. And when I did, I felt like I was doing something wrong.
Photography by Luke Austin
Can you blame me? As a society, we are deeply entrenched in hustle culture and no one with a social media account is immune. At the time of this writing, #riseandgrind has over four million tags on Instagram. What used to be keeping up with the Joneses has mutated into not just keeping up with but also out-working everyone. And one of the tenets of hustle culture, as the New York Times noted in 2019, is “spending time on anything that’s nonwork related is a reason to feel guilty.”
While hustle culture affects all genders, men seem to be particularly susceptible to it because it dovetails with what they’re taught about traditional masculinity. Hustle culture values aggression, competition, winning, dominating - often at the expense of everything else. In American culture at least, traditional masculinity must be earned and is in constant jeopardy of being taken away, a concept called “precarious masculinity,” social psychologist Joseph Vandello told The Atlantic in 2019. He notes that traditional masculinity is maintained by actions that can sometimes become risky, aggressive, and even violent.
Photography by Luke Austin
In these terms, both in regards to hustle culture and traditional masculinity, it’s not surprising that men neglect their health. Psychologist Dr. Will Courtenay has described the notion that “health avoidance behaviors,” such as refusing to see a doctor, which is tied to masculinity. Not only are men expected to tough it out, but actually about health, in general, is a stereotypically feminine idea. And among those health issues, unsurprisingly, is sleep - the very enemy of hustle culture and, by extension, men.
In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research, researchers found that masculine attitudes toward sleep are so pervasive that they don’t just affect men themselves, but our society as a whole. In a series of a dozen experiments, researchers discovered that not only were men who don’t get much sleep viewed as more masculine but more masculine men were assumed to sleep less. They also found that “lack of sleep” is consistently viewed as a masculine characteristic. According to the study’s researchers Nathan Warren, M.S., M.A., and Troy Campbell, Ph.D., one reason this could be is that masculinity is typically viewed in opposition to femininity and as the absence of anything associated with it - like health.
“The social nature of the sleep-deprived masculinity stereotype positively reinforces males who sleep less, even though sleeping less contributes to significant mental and physical health problems,” write the study’s authors. We know that lack of sleep increases the risk of mental health issues like depression and anxiety, as well as physical issues like heart disease, diabetes, and weakened immunity. On top of this, men are less willing than women to seek professional help for any health issue, but especially psychological health. And, the researchers continue, this has the potential to not just impact the men themselves but those around them and society at large. Research has found that men who sleep less tend to be more aggressive and violent.
Photography by Luke Austin
It’s discouraging that these ideas are baked into our culture. Warren and Campbell note in their study that men buy fewer health and wellness products than women, yet items like energy drinks are specifically marketed to men in an effort to take advantage of this dichotomy. In gendered terms, hustling and wellness cultures are at odds with each other.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As ideas about gender expression gradually change and the pitfalls of hustle culture are exposed, more men have the power to decide what is right for them. Prioritizing health, and more specifically sleep, could be the antidote to the burnout so many of us face as a result of hustling too hard. The idea that how much of a man you are is directly proportional to how little you sleep is an antiquated and, quite frankly, scary idea. But changing it is much easier said than done. I know that first hand - after leaving my last job, it took me months to be able to put my phone down in the evening and even longer to actually sleep through the night. But once I did, I found I was more productive and my output was higher quality than when I was frazzled and sleep deprived. And now, I can’t imagine going back. I’ll sleep when I’m dead? No thanks, I’ll sleep right now.