If there ever was a turning point that could help break the myth that executives can work 120 hours a week, but sleep a few hours a night and have no regrets, then maybe it's Elon Musk's betrayal interview with the New York Times and the conversation has fueled in the days that followed.
He described his past year as "unbearable," acknowledging that it was "at the expense of seeing my children" and admitted that he had used Ambien to help sleep, and in his surprisingly vulnerable words exposed the effect of his all-devouring work.
The interview, which followed Musk's unexpected Twitter announcement that he considered to take the car manufacturer private, drew articles that warn of the health risks of overwork, tweets from anxiety about his well-being and even open letters from anti-burnout champion Arianna Huffington who called on him to follow science and regularly find time to refuel, recharge and re-connect & # 39; (Musk & # 39; s early morning) answer: "You think this is an option, it is not.")
Experts say that all attention to Musk's emotional state can have little effect on the overtime culture that many business leaders have practiced and that are being celebrated today in Corporate America. It is ingrained in culture and inseparable from the kind of career that people idealize themselves. And With the increase of smartphones, our work goes with us everywhere.
"He really is the poster boy of a contemporary culture that celebrates impulsive authenticity and obsessive overtime," said Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD's business school who heads his executive education program. "He is the symbol of a workplace culture in which we long for a very personal, even romantic relationship with work", even if that means it costs everything.
Musk has already sounded alarm clocks about his stress levels.
A year ago he tweeted in response to a Twitter user who wondered about his amazing lifestyle & # 39; that & # 39; the reality are great highlights, terrible lows and unrelenting stress & # 39 ;. Do not think that people want to hear about the last two. "Asked if he was bipolar by another, he first said" yes "but then" maybe not medically ", saying" correlate bad feelings with bad events so maybe the real problem is to get carried away in what I sign up. "And in 2015 he advised against running two large companies – Musk not only leads Tesla and SpaceX but also has side ventures such as the Boring Company – and says," it denies your freedom properly. "
Still, the bruising hours of the 47-year-old entrepreneur in some way remain an idealized view of what executives could possibly do, if they just knew how to squeeze every bit of productivity out of their bodies and their time, experts say.
Els van der Helm, co-founder of a company and an app that helps companies coach their employees to sleep better, said that the name Musk often appears as an exception to the rule that people might want to follow.
"When we work with customers, we always get that question – what about those leaders who only sleep three or four hours?" "How is that possible?" She said. "For the longest time, [Musk] was one of those who, at least for the outside world, fit that successful stereotype. "
"His image was always a lot, you just push yourself and you just push your company and see how successful you are," she said. "But that is not what science would support."
Although she sees encouraging signals that executives are becoming more sensitive to the need for more sleep and more manageable hours, the ubiquity of smartphones means that a wake-up call from Musk does not change much.
"There is still a big culture around how, if you want to be ambitious, you send that e-mail at night and do not show when you take a nap in the middle of the day," she said. "That perpetuates the image of the leader who works long hours."
In some hard-working work cultures, such as management advice, some top managers try to "succeed" in working on the 80-plus hour weeks that their colleagues do, even when they are not. One study found that female partners would rather request formal accommodations for more manageable hours, while male partners were rather looking for less good ways to work less (like locating local customers), so they work shorter, even if nobody is aware and they do not experience the consequences (fewer promotions for example) because they are perceived as less working.
Petriglieri says that work, especially for top executives who are committed to and consumed by their work, is increasingly not only a way to earn a living, but a means to find a purpose in our lives.
"The ultimate taboo in most working cultures today is to say," I'm just doing this for the money and I find great significance in my church, in my charity, in my sport, in my family, "he says. put talent equal to your willingness to put work at the heart of your life. "
Even managers who think it is worth it to sleep more, he said, today often do this not only as a way to be healthy, but also see it as top athletes, as a way to improve their productivity. "Even sleep is co-opted as a performance technique," he said.
Alexandra Michel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who studied the culture of long hours on Wall Street, has seen the same phenomenon.
"The body is now productive capital and it is being treated that way," she said. "People have identified so much with the organization that that conflict is now in their bodies: how you eat – how you sleep [considered] for the sole purpose of execution. "
And even if executives take Huffington's words to heart and try to get more sleep and take breaks when needed, they might not get out and give in if they have problems. The emotional frankness of Musk over his long hours and frank discussions about his potential toll for his health did not calm the investors, albeit nervously after his take-the-company-private tweets. Friday, after the interview was published, Tesla's share fell sharply, by nearly 9 percent.
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