Have you reached your tipping point?

Achieving a better work-life balance isn’t just good for your soul, it can benefit your business. So, asks Charlotte Hogarth-Jones, how hard should we work?

Words: Charlotte Hogarth-Jones
Photography: Daniel Stier

Have you reached your tipping point?

“You know you’re doing your job right if you’re up at 3am and have a knot in your stomach, a rash on your skin, are losing sleep and losing touch with your wife and kids,” commented three-time Superbowl-winning NFL coach, the late Bill Walsh. This quote was used in a Stanford University lecture on start-ups, and echoes the views of many of Silicon Valley’s most prominent entrepreneurs today.

“Work like hell,” says Elon Musk. “If other people are putting in 40-hour work weeks and you’re putting in 100, you know that you will achieve in four months what they’ll do in a year.” It’s what you’d expect from Musk, who is said to have slept on a bean bag next to his desk in order to get his city guides start-up off the ground, and later to have done the same near the Tesla production line. So is that the way it has to be, then? Well, not necessarily.

Workaholism is a disease

David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of web development framework Ruby on Rails and co-founder of communication software Basecamp (as well as a successful author and racing driver), has been outspoken about a culture of “trickle-down workaholism”. “Workaholism is a disease,” he says. “We need treatment and coping advice for those afflicted, not cheerleaders for their misery.” (Indeed, research published in the European Heart Journal this September showed that those who work more than 55 hours per week increase their risk of developing atrial fibrillation – which can lead to strokes and heart attacks – by 40 per cent.)

Meanwhile Blake Robbins, a tech investor whose CV includes stints at Google, Nest and SpaceX, says, “When I first got into tech, I thought it was ‘cool’ to work on the weekends or holidays. I quickly realised that’s a disaster. I promise you, your competition isn’t beating you because they're working more hours, it’s because they’re working smarter.”

So if you’re starting your own business, or are in the early stages of one, should you be all in, or all relaxed? We spoke to a number of entrepreneurs in the UK for this story, and the one thing they unanimously agreed on was that spending far less time with friends and family is inevitable – whatever your industry.

Is it really worth it?

“The biggest sacrifice is time,” says Sandy Macaskill, who launched Barry’s Bootcamp London with his brother back in 2013. “There were a couple of black-hole years when we both basically disappeared off the map. If friends or family wanted to see us, they had to come to Barry’s.”

“I often find out that friends have been for lunch, gone for a coffee morning or had a really nice day out – without me,” says fashion designer Anna Mason. “I know I chose to do this, but sometimes you do think, ‘Shit, is it really worth it?’”

“I don’t believe you can really ‘have it all’ without making tough choices,” agrees Julietta Dexter, who co-founded global PR agency The Communications Store. “I love the business with a passion, so it doesn’t feel like I'm making a sacrifice personally, but I do worry sometimes about my husband, who gets the short straw. So I need to be smart enough to give him the better sides of me, not just the exhausted, end-of-the-day me.”

The first year of a start-up is always going to be tough of course. Macaskill claims that his first six months of business is a blur, that he averaged three hours of sleep a night, and “even crashed out on the concrete floor one day”, while “it was totally normal to see members of staff asleep on treadmills”. Founder of health-food brand BOL, Paul Brown, says launching the company was a seven-days-a-week job. “It was all-consuming,” he recalls, “I don’t remember a time during this period that I wasn’t thinking about work.”

But what about the  long term? Another common factor among those we spoke to was some form of preciously guarded “me time” – from country walks or tapestry to early-morning boxing, CrossFit or yoga sessions. That, and a kick-ass assistant – someone to grapple with challenging finances, or a calm friend to join forces with. An extra pair of hands might not buy you time, but most claim it can go a long way to helping maintain your sanity.


Precious time

As a start-up expands, the challenges keep coming – and the mental burden is as much of a sacrifice as your time. “There are days when our sewing machine is broken, or a dress didn’t come back from the outworker… but those don’t necessarily make you want to throw in the towel,” says Mason. “Those are also the days when you look at your bank account and think, ‘My god, there’s a bit of money in there, but we’re working so hard and there isn’t quite enough to make that big leap forward.'”

Making life choices

So far, so stressful. But there’s hope. For starters, it takes a certain type of person to become an entrepreneur, and for many the time given up, the highs and the lows, are all worth it. The opportunity to turn a dream into a business is what all those sacrifices are made for. And although it seems the workload is unlikely to decrease, we are, it seems, starting to think more about ways to protect ourselves – sleep, meditation and hobbies such as life-drawing are all trending right now (see page 62 for more creative escapes), and there’s a sense that those at the top are more mindful of the hours their junior staff put in. Even Amazon, famed for its competitive work culture, is trialling new ways of doing things: some staff are working a 30-hour work week to see if productivity is affected.

“I’m probably quite weird in that I like working under stress,” says Macaskill. “Exhaustion is no fun, but deadlines and pressure bring out my creative side.” And he’s not the only one to see the positive side of putting in the hours. “The thing is, I love what I do, so it doesn’t feel like work,” says Dexter. “I’d urge everyone to think carefully about what they actually want in life, but this is my choice and it makes me happy.”

“I don’t divide my life into work/personal/pleasure,” says Brown, striking a similar note. “‘One life, live it’ – that’s my mantra. I really love what I do and if that means it’s all-consuming, then so be it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”