A Home for Workaholics

The innovators and iconoclasts that inhabit Silicon Valley have long cultivated a reputation for swimming against the corporate current.

So, it makes sense then that some of these same individuals would be pushing their people harder at a time when many companies are striving to help employees achieve something close to work/life balance.

The New York Times’ Dan Lyons says as much in a recent opinion piece that focuses on how some companies in the Valley are actually “branding workaholism as a desirable lifestyle choice.”

In the north of California, “an entire cottage industry has sprung up,” writes Lyons, “selling an Internet-centric prosperity gospel that says there is no higher calling than to start your own company, and that to succeed you must be willing to give up everything.”

A tech company’s founder and architect making enormous—and, to some, unthinkable—personal sacrifices to build and sustain a successful business is one thing. But “rank-and-file workers are buying into this madness, too,” says Lyons, a former tech reporter who also worked in marketing with a start-up after losing his job at Newsweek at age 52. (Lyons, who bowed out of that position after not quite two years on the job, has since penned a book chronicling his time in the start-up bubble. Spoiler alert: he didn’t particularly enjoy it.)

He offers a recent scenario at San Francisco-based Lyft as an extreme example of the all-work-all-the-time ethos that persists in the Valley.

Last year, a very pregnant Lyft driver started having contractions while on the road working, and, you guessed it, continued picking up fares on her way to the hospital. A subsequent Lyft blog post celebrated the driver’s refusal to let a little thing like childbirth get in the way of doing her job. The post was ultimately deleted after critics lambasted Lyft for praising the driver; a reaction that Lyons says “genuinely puzzled” those within the company, including the driver herself.

Proud workaholics abound in the Valley, of course, but some show it in more discreet ways—wearing T-shirts that say “9 to 5 is for the weak,” for example. Then there’s venture capitalist Keith Rabois, who bragged in a recent tweet that he worked for 18 years while taking less than one week of vacation, according to Lyons, who says living at such a breakneck pace is actually a selling point for those with designs on becoming the next big-time tech player.

“Wannabe Zuckerbergs are told that starting a company is like joining the Navy SEALS,” writes Lyons. “For a certain type of person—usually young and male—the hardship is part of the allure.”

As for the hopefuls flocking to the Valley to get in on the ground floor with the next Facebook or Lyft, maintaining a brutal work schedule is perceived as just another part of the job, clinical social worker Anim Aweh tells Lyons.

“Everyone wants to be a model employee,” according to Aweh, who Lyons says “sees a lot of stressed-out tech workers” where she works in the Bay area.

“One woman told me: ‘The expectation is not that you should work smart, it’s that you should work hard. It’s just do, do, do, until you can’t do anymore.”

We often hear HR leaders say their organizations are becoming much more vocal in encouraging employees to balance their work with their personal lives—minding the number of hours they put in or taking a day off when they need a break, for example.

If the picture that Lyons paints is an accurate one, then some in the tech sector are taking a much different approach. And—sadly, some might say—the hopeless workaholic will likely remain a fixture in northern California for the foreseeable future.

“The chance to become the next 20-something tech celebrity billionaire has not lost its power,” says Lyons. “Every year thousands of fresh recruits flood into San Francisco, hoping to be baptized into the religion of the hustle. As bad as things have become today, there might be worse to come.”