300,000 Miles and Proud of It
Nowadays, overwork has become a badge of honor.
The source: “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, in Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2006.
The world of work doesn’t just appear to be more time consuming and demanding than it did only five years ago. It is. At the top of the nation’s job hierarchy, the “extreme job” is becoming ever more so. Nearly half of people with extreme jobs say they are working an average of 17 more hours per week than they did as recently as 2001, write Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York nonprofit, and Carolyn Buck Luce, chair of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force.
Extreme jobs are those that are highly paid—salaries are in the top six percent of all wage earners—and require more than 60 hours of work a week. Tending toward unpredictability, they often require 24/7 availability and extensive travel. About 21 percent of the nation’s most highly paid professionals describe their positions as extreme, according to a 2006 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy. Workers with extreme jobs are frequently expected to handle mentoring and recruiting, to attend after-hours events, and to juggle an inordinate scope of responsibility that amounts to more than one position. Think of the creative director of a large entertainment company, juggling new technologies, new products, and new markets on several continents.
The rise in the demands of top professional jobs grows out of “sweeping changes in the global economic environment,” the authors write. Mergers and flattened hierarchies have shrunk the pool of such positions in some areas—more than three percent of all corporate officer positions in the Fortune 500 have disappeared within the past 10 years—even as new female and minority candidates contend for the remaining slots. As competitive pressures throughout the economy make extreme jobs seem more necessary, other changes in society are making them more attractive. As in the world of extreme sports, where the winners perform the most daring, demanding, and gratuitous feats, so professionals wear their over-the-top work commitments on their sleeves, bragging about flying 300,000 miles a year.
Technology facilitates extreme work. Cell phones, PDAs, and the Web make staying in constant touch possible, hence mandatory. As more hours are spent at the office, households and families are starved of time, and they become progressively less appealing. Home becomes the source of stress and guilt, while work becomes the place where successful professionals go to get strokes, admiration, and respect, the authors say.
Even so, “long workweeks cannot simply be chalked up to the crushing effects of a heartless and unchecked capitalist system.” Many extreme professionals find their work enormously alluring. Their intensity and investment may serve companies well in the short run but will pose risks over time. Employees can burn out, undermine their health, and weaken family ties.
The extreme work model threatens to cull real talent, particularly female talent, that otherwise could have reached the top. Women don’t shirk the responsibility of extreme work, but the majority—especially women who are mothers—are simply not matching the hours logged by their male colleagues, the authors write. Companies seeking more gender diversity—and perhaps greater lifestyle balance—in their upper ranks should look carefully at the work behavior they are rewarding. Their pool of top talent will shrink dramatically if jobs go from being exhilarating to merely exhausting.