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!