Fast Company

Hooked on Work: the Allure of Extreme Jobs

The setting Monday night for the unveiling of the Center for Work-Life Policy’s latest research, titled, “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek,” couldn’t have been more appropriate: the very epicenter of Extreme Jobism, upstairs in the gilded conference room at the New York Stock Exchange.

Introducing the speakers, NYSE CEO John Thain, appeared a little baffled. What was the problem, he asked, with putting in those kinds of hours? “At Goldman Sachs,” he noted, “70 hours is just the first three days of the week.”

That’s it in a nutshell, said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the Center’s president and the study’s co-author. For people who love their work – and who get supersized rewards for putting in super-sized hours -- the concept that they’re being harmed by spending so much time at work misses the point. They want to be there. They get a rush from their jobs. They revel in the challenge.

And every year, as there are more and more of them, they seem less and less aberrant. (Fast Company wrote about this phenomenon in April 2005)

To qualify as an extreme jobber, a worker must meet the following standards: first, work 60 hours a week or more, then, meet at least five of the following conditions: have work whose flow is unpredictable, work under tight deadlines, have work events outside of regular work hours, be available to clients 24/7, have P&L responsibility, have a large amount of travel, or a large number of direct reports, have a scope of responsibility that amounts to more than one job.

According to Hewlett, the pool of workers who meet the standard for extreme is growing. More than 20% of U.S. workers qualify, she says, and 45% of professionals in global companies. Measured by sheer work hours alone, 48% say they’re working an average of 16.6 hours more per week than they did five hours ago.

The reasons? Among the external drivers: the current global economic environment which often requires enormous travel and the necessity of being available at odd hours for conference calls and communication with the other side of the world; competitive pressures; vastly improved communication technology; and cultural shifts. Among the internal motivators: stimulating work, high quality colleagues, high compensation, power, and status.

But this steroid-infused idea of the workplace does not come without costs. Three quarters of the women surveyed said their work interfered with their ability to maintain their homes (66% of men said the same thing), two thirds said they don’t get enough sleep; half didn’t get enough exercise, and a significant number use alcohol, drugs, or food to alleviate their stress.

More than half say their sex lives have suffered; and nearly half say their work has interfered with their ability to have a strong relationship. Perhaps most disturbingly, a significant number of both men and women say their work life has affected their children. Among the behaviors noted: watching too much TV, discipline issues related to lack of attention; eating too much junk food; and underachieving at school.

Not surprisingly, there’s a gender issue here. Among the extreme jobbers in the U.S., less than a fifth are women. While women are well represented in jobs that require high performance (fast pace with tight deadlines, 24/7 client demands, etc.), once those jobs require more than 60 hours a week, there’s a huge fall off in women’s participation. Women, it seems, are more sensitive to the “opportunity costs” of long hour jobs, particularly as they relate to the well-being of their children.

“We’ve moved the goal posts to a place women can’t go,” says Hewlett. The inevitable result? Fewer women in the pool from which an organization’s top leaders are recruited.

Right now, the cost of these jobs has been mostly borne by individual workers. However, as the labor shortage projected in the next few years materializes, companies may find themselves having to rethink the demands of these jobs or watch their most valuable talent walk out the door. A majority of women (57%) said they don’t’ want to work at this pace for more than another year; 48% of men agreed.

As with most major workplace policy initiatives, the real change will come when it’s in a company’s own business interest to find a way to accommodate workers’ needs, not because it’s the nice thing to do. Some companies – particularly service firms – are already experimenting with new models.

Has your company done anything innovative to retain talent and/or eliminate the need for such extreme behavior?

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