In March of last year, 35-year-old Paul (name changed), who worked at a popular e-commerce startup, fell ill for the third time in a month. He suffered from a high fever, chills, and low blood pressure for several days. The pressure of increasing responsibilities at work was clearly getting in the way of his daily life.
A few days later, Paul quit his job. In his 1,000-word resignation letter, he described how the seven-year stint with the company had left him exhausted. 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 says. Your history.
Paul’s experience is not isolated. Many Indian start-up employees work in high-pressure environments and are expected to follow the unwritten rule of long working hours.CEO Shantanu Deshpande recently took the floor in a LinkedIn post, suggesting that young employees needed to work 18 hours a daycausing outrage on social media.
Many employees, especially those working at young companies, are now pushing back against toxic founders and cultures and holding top management to account. From expressing concerns directly to founders to sharing their experiences on social media, it seems like an uprising is brewing.
This marks a major development in the fast-growing startup space that glorifies hustle culture and often disparages those who don’t become a part of it. Founders, who were largely answerable only to their investors, now face increasing scrutiny from their employees. Startups also face the risk of losing a crucial talent pool of employees. Is the industry undergoing a transformation?
Rushing for health
Hustle culture is not just an Indian phenomenon. Employees working at young companies around the world are expected to work long hours (even on weekends) and jump from meeting to meeting without a break. Even taking time off is considered a sign of laziness.
Take China, for example. Its tech industry follows the infamous Work culture rule ‘996’, 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 tycoons such as Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Richard Liu, the practice has drawn criticism, especially after a young employee of a Chinese short video company died of a brain hemorrhage after working for a week-long public holiday earlier this year.
Japan also praises its culture of overwork to exhaustion. In fact, the country has coined the term Karoshi‘, which literally means ‘death from 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’s an endless cycle of expectations,” says Ishita Dutta, a Bangalore-based psychologist. “Employees are overworked, exhausted, and struggling to perform basic activities.” She adds that the number of her clients experiencing burnout has doubled in the last year.
Burnout comes in the form of deteriorating health in 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.
changing the norm
Several employees are now raising concerns. “The first step is to step strong,” says another startup employee who did not want to be identified. In his case, the CEO of the company refused to allow him to take a three-day break to visit his sick mother. “The founder equated free time with irresponsibility, which was certainly not the case,” he says. Finally, after several honest email conversations with the founding team, he was able to take a break.
Some employees are also making use of company-wide public meetings. These are meant to break conventional chains of command and allow even the youngest workers to express themselves.
“Employees are getting rid of the filter and asking questions like why should they work weekends,” says Satyajit Menon, chief of staff at the healthcare firm.. He points out that even though smaller organizations have a smaller workforce, employees are increasingly demanding that policies regarding overtime and paid leave be written into contracts.
“When scaling, everyone in the company wants to win together and you will find people building and operating at the same time. In such situations, stress levels and work pressure affect all teams,” he adds.
Some turn 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 top candidates to apply the next day, which several netizens found too toxic, with many taking to Twitter to share their own experiences.
“Working long hours definitely gives you speed. We have seen this with the 996 culture in China. But it doesn’t necessarily give you speed. Also, employee burnout is corrosive,” one cheep read.
fixing the problem
Vivek Jayaraman, people success officer at SaaS firm Leanpitch, says founders are waking up to the rampant problem of toxic workplace culture. “There’s no way to say the hustle culture will go away, but we can expect the founders to make workplaces employee-friendly,” he says. However, he believes progress will be slow and uncertain.
Ishita also believes that it is important to humanize the workplace. She says HR managers now have a bigger role to play and founders need to make sure a dedicated HR professional is hired to handle all of those issues.
“Since returning to the workplace recently, we have been on a mission to re-engage and update for the people (who grew up with us, albeit remotely, over the past two years) our core principles, values and the foundation upon which we stand. based our success. built,” says Satyajit of Innovaccer, which manages an employee base of more than 1,500 worldwide.
Although there is little chance that the hustle culture will fade, it is clear that employees will no longer settle for toxic practices.