I recently came across a fascinating article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce in an old Harvard Business Review (December 2006). Their article, entitled “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek”, describes a little-discussed subset of the workforce, where “extreme professionals” – with workweeks of at least 60 hours and exhibiting at least 5 of 10 characteristics, such as unpredictable flow of work, fast-paced work under tight deadlines and availability to clients 24/7 – feel exalted rather than exploited, and view “get-a-life dedication” as a badge of honor.
While the focus of Hewlett and Luce is on analyzing whether women are disadvantaged by this mindset, they offer an insightful picture of high-earners enthusiastic about their (not too sustainable-looking) lifestyle because of the impact their work has on their company. The authors describe this as “the American Dream on Steroids.” Since their survey was done over 5 years ago, I wonder how the financial crisis has affected these employees’ outlook and their work hours. (Back in 2006, Hewlett and Luce found that 56% of high-earners in extreme jobs worked more than 70 hours a week, but 66% of extreme jobholders in the U.S. sample and 76% in the global companies survey “say they love their job, which suggest at least one third of international extreme jobholders are happy with their situation.)
Hewlett and Luce explain the rise of extreme jobs through the following factors: competitive pressures, the embrace of the “extreme” ethos in popular culture, new levels of connectivity that make managers expect their employees to be available at any time, the workplace as social center, more knowledge-based work (which is highly portable). I hope the authors run a follow-up survey; I would certainly read the results with interest.
In the meantime, I will also point out two less positive, and more recent, articles about all-consuming jobs – demanding many hours, but not necessarily with the exhilarating features that define extreme jobs in Hewlett and Luce’s article. The first article is a Schumpeter column in The Economist, dating from May 2010 and focusing on employees’ being overstretched, after a mention of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, which seems an appropriate if dark parable in many respects. (The suggestions to help companies deal with employees’ dissatisfaction are rather bland: 1. Redouble efforts to make staff feel valued. 2. Make more use of “empowerment”. 3. Pay attention to high performers. Yawn. But Schumpeter churns out enough great columns week after week that we can forgive him/her for a trite one. That and the fact that mentioning of "Animal Farm" earned him/her enough bonus points in the first half of the column to coast through the rest.)
The second one is an article in the Wall Street Journal called “Superjobs” with the subtitle: “Why you work more, enjoy it less”, published in May. An excerpt: “Some workplace experts say the superjob is the logical next step in management's quest to make the workplace more cost efficient… 53% of workers surveyed said they've taken on new roles, most of them without extra pay (just 7% got a raise or a bonus).” Although the article points out that many successful leaders grew from “stretch experiences”, it also provides worrisome figures: in a recent survey, only 43% of Americans were satisfied with their jobs. Similarly to The Economist, the WSJ mentions “recognition programs that reward employees for taking on extra work” and emphasizes good workload management practices, the most useful one but probably hardest to implement being to “manage up”, i.e., let your boss know when your workload is becoming unmanageable.
For more recent takes on extreme jobs, check out this August post by Hewlett on her Forbes blog, as well as a August 2007 HBR blog post, also by Hewlett, and recent articles in the mainstream press (online) by bloggers: "Balancing Act" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and "Do you have an extreme job?" in Psychology Today.