Thursday, February 01, 2007

Working harder than ever - and lovin' it

This is a slightly extended version of my piece which appeared in Businessworld magazine, issue dt 29 Jan 2007

The 'Extreme Job' Syndrome
by Rashmi Bansal

IT is the latest buzzword in yuppiesphere. ‘Extreme jobs’ are screwing up lives and yet, they are on the rise. A recent study published in Harvard Business Review (HBR) notes that 52 per cent of America’s top income earners is working more than 70 hours a week (sample: 1,564 respondents). Extreme hours, extreme demands and extreme pay packets form a heady cocktail — sleep, sex and serenity be damned.

The HBR study, ‘Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek’, co-authored by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, drops scary statistics, but much of it along expected lines. Nearly 50 per cent of those who work these gruelling hours say it has affected their sex life; 46 per cent believe it is affecting their marriage as a whole.

So, what is new? Workaholism has long been recognised as an unhealthy way of life. “The nation’s best-dressed addiction,” says Bryan E. Robinson, author of a handbook on workaholism titled Chained To The Desk. In an interview to Forbes magazine, Robinson noted, “Workaholics often come from dysfunctional homes and have learnt that putting in crushing hours helps calm their anxiety about other aspects of life.” Like alcohol or drug addiction, it only masks the underlying problem, and creates more.

The ‘extreme jobs’ phenomenon, however, goes beyond. While some folks in extreme jobs would qualify as ‘workaholics’, most of them are otherwise happy, well-adjusted people. They don’t lack confidence or self-esteem. They are not bitter and crotchety. And they would be happy to ‘switch off’ from work. If it were not for that buzzing BlackBerry.

At least, that is what Hewlett’s study would have you believe. She classified a job as ‘extreme’ if it entailed working for 60 hours or more a week and at least five additional performance pressures including 24x7 client demands, profit and loss responsibility, and frequent travel. Technology, globalisation of work and leaner work forces are contributing factors. But let us scratch below the surface.

The single most revealing aspect of the HBR study is that the majority of these extreme workers love their jobs. What’s more, only 43 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women listed high financial compensation as the reason for being in an extreme job situation. Money is a definite ego boost but not the primary motivation. It is the adrenaline rush that the work provides — a kick that is much harder to come by in ‘life’.

Let’s face it. Once the honeymoon is over, marriage is something you have got to work at. Kids are lovable but as Hillary Clinton once said, it takes a village to raise a child. And we haven’t got any villages to depend on any more. Day-to-day, family life is like drifting along in a slow boat, and work is one non-stop transatlantic adventure. Unlike the workaholic of yore, extreme workers may not be using work as a refuge from life. But the new workaholic uses work as his primary trip — the part of life that provides challenge and stimulation, a sense of control, of tangible return.

So, what is wrong with that? Nothing, perhaps. But not too long ago, work was what you did so you could lead a life. Life, like work, was steady and routine. You ate, slept, spoke and sat around as a family. You did these things year after year and one day woke up to find your kids grown up and ready to start their own families. And so the cycle continued. Work wasn’t ‘who you are’, just what you did.

Now, it is quite the opposite. “Meet XYZ, working with ABC” is how introductions are made. Work is what provides a sense of identity. And so you embrace it. In the new, extreme economy, the more you love your work, the more it loves you back. You get more recognition, rewards, and a sense of satisfaction for a ‘job well done’.

And you get it instantly. Overachievers or “road warriors”, as Hewlett calls them, are addicted to doing stuff that takes them closer to some tangible goal. Timeframe? The next quarter.

On the other hand, there are no quick fixes in ‘life’. If your child eats beans, he will be healthy and is likely to do well in life. And one day, you will feel proud and he will be thankful for it. Meanwhile, you are engaged in a battle at the dinner table where logic and reason, bribes and threats have no effect. And you can’t even fire the person!

The bottom line is that technology and globalisation are to blame for ‘extreme jobs’. But so is ambition and greed; not just for money, but for constant stimulation and excitement. It is a choice we are making with our eyes open and hearts willing. We may say we want ‘balance’ in life, but are afraid it may bore us to death. Extreme jobs? Expect them to remain extremely alluring.

Except for women - they are simply opting out. The HBR study found that only 20% of extreme job workers are female. And of that small pool, 80% have ‘one foot out of the door’. They do not want to work this hard, under this kind of pressure, for more than 12 months. There are men who feel that way as well, but only 58%.

The truth is, extreme jobs are possible only when there is someone to manage the mundane and the domestic. And except for the rare instances where the man takes off the pants and puts on the apron, that someone is the woman. When life as a dual-career couple gets too complex, crazy or exhausting, she exercises the ‘choice’. Of leading a life more ordinary, but free. At least from that guilty feeling of not being a good mommy.

So what about that adrenalin rush? She gets it from her new role – bringing up perfect, all around accomplished kids. The kind who attend the best school, have the right friends, don’t eat junk food and watch only Animal Planet on television.

Long hours, constant demands, close-to-impossible goals to achieve. Sounds like yet another extreme job– minus the pay!


  1. The single most revealing aspect of the HBR study is that the majority of these extreme workers love their jobs.

    That may be one part of it - but it also may not necessarily be true for all extreme workers.

    A large number of fresh engineering and other graduates are recruited primarily for what is called gadha-mazdoori - donkey work. So they are the ones pushing paper till late at night, colecting or attempting to colect payments for the sales departments of various companies, meeting targets and deadlines, filling up Excel spreadsheets and figuring out SAP tools becaus "the month end is approaching"

    Companies know that these freshies will go away as soon as they get a better offer or admission to higher studies, and squeeze them for all its worth. It's a circle, and a self-defeating one.

    I'm lucky, I'm in technical research and work life is not remotely hellish. But enough of my friends are not as fortunate as I am.

  2. unfortunately for extreme jobs this love does not ever's role changes and the part of the jobs that we hate might become more and slowly the infatuation wears off.

    I posted about the same phenomenon in Dec and my readers were vehement in opposing it :-)

  3. Hindsight makes you realize that the extra hard work on a project doesn't make much of a difference. The idea is to learn from them. But the only advantage of that experience is that you recognise the mistake when you repeat them!!

  4. You are screwed if your boss has this syndrome :D

  5. Hi Rashmi! Just came across ur blogger profile.

    I think u hv summed it up pretty well here in this article... especially the last line... "Long hours, constant demands, close-to-impossible goals to achieve. Sounds like yet another extreme job– minus the pay!"

    Guess that truly is the REAL "adrenalin rush"... meeting these "close-to-impossible goals", which even technology n globalisation cannot help much in achieving!

    Call me a feminist if u will, I have no say in this as the scales are dipped way too low in favour of the females (80% F vs 58% M non-extreme workers!)... but isn't it like "taking-the-easy-way-out" when you work just for yourself - your thrill, your excitement, your fat wallet, your ambitions, your material possessions (blah blah)? Doesn't it appear to be a sort of cowardly approach to the other things in your life which you can't control so easily, viz. the tears of ur kids when life serves them disappointments, the emotional dramas of ur family, the first heartbreak of ur little girl.........

    It feels like u don't believe urself to be capable of keeping ur judgement intact under THESE real-time situations/problems... n so u simply dedicate urself completely to WORK, so tht every new milestone covered thr cud boost ur ego a little more n add another feather-on-ur-cap n help u bask in glory... while u urself know deep down somewhr tht this so-called SUCCESS is just a lie - a false, make-believe bed-time-story!

    And then... what happens when u finally wake up from this dream-world one day? When u realize u hv missed ur kids growing up, their first ball, their first hockey game, their first stage show in school...... or worse... u never even had the time to have kids!........

  6. In today's world there is no work-life balance, but you do have work-life choices. Sometimes the work gets the first priority and there are times when life runs the show.

    If you are part of the Offshore Development in India, then the communication tips on my blog might help be assertive in achieving that choice.

  7. Rashmi,
    You blog is great, especially the things you write related to today's women.I also write a lot about this.
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