Extreme jobs: Pushing work to the outer limits

Extreme jobs: Pushing work to the outer limits

America seems to be hooked on extremes these days. There are extreme sports, for example such as skydiving, snowboarding, triathlons, bungee jumping, and ultra marathons. And extreme makeovers of bodies, wardrobes, homes, and families. And how about extreme food – like monster burgers, 24-ounce steaks, and 44-ounce drinks. Now we can add jobs to the list of things pushing toward the extreme.
According to a study by the Work-Life Policy Institute so called extreme jobs are on the rise. Nearly two million Americans hold them and they can be found in every industry. These over-the-top jobs affect workers of all generations and in every stage of careers. Data from this research showed that 62 percent of high-earning individuals work more than 50 hours per week, 35 percent more than 60 hours per week and 10 percent more than 80 hours per week. Fifty-six percent of those people holding extreme jobs work 70 hours or more a week and nine percent work 100 hours or more. Now that’s Type A plus.
The time spent on the job has been rising for three decades – according to researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research the number of men working full time that put in at least a 50-hour week rose from 22.2 percent to 30.5 percent between 1980 and 2001. Extreme jobholders are further accelerating this trend – 48 percent said they are working an average of 16.6 more hours per week than they did five years ago. Vacations? Fuggedaboutit – 55 percent of extreme jobholders claimed they had to regularly cancel planned time off.
What makes a job extreme?
The Work-Life Policy Institute’s researchers took pains to distinguish between what they refer to as “run-of-the-mill long-hours jobs” and extreme jobs. Their definition takes into account not just hours but also the kinds of pressures that make these jobs particularly stressful.
People with extreme jobs routinely put in more than 60 hours per week, are high earners and hold positions with at least five of the following characteristics:
Unpredictable workflow – “Drop everything guys, our most important client just called – they want the proposal first thing tomorrow morning.”
Fast-paced work under tight deadlines – Get it done, now.
Inordinate scope of responsibility that amounts to more than one job – A direct result of flattening hierarchies and habitual downsizing.
Work-related events outside of regular hours – Schmoozing and boozing are required competencies.
Availability to clients 24/7 – There is no such thing as downtime.
Responsibility for profit and loss – Your job rides on making the numbers.
Responsibility for mentoring and recruiting – You are the key player in building and developing the team.
Large amount of travel – “What’s good for chronic jet lag?”
Large number of direct reports – You have a 747 wing-like span of control.
Physical presence at the work place at least 10 hours per day – Face time rules.
The researchers polled workers in extreme jobs and found that those job characteristics that created the most intensity and pressure were unpredictability, fast pace with tight deadlines, work-related events outside business hours, and 24/7 client demands. In other words, extreme jobholders must always be “on” and constantly prepared to deal with the unexpected.
There will always be jobs that make extreme demands and it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. But, the Work-Life Policy Institute research describes an environment that seems sure to increase the number and intensity of extreme jobs. The researchers cited many causes for hyper work routines such as cutthroat competition, pervasive technology and connectivity, 24/7 global operations, more complex work, and the workplace emerging as a center for personal fulfillment and social relationships.
After the high comes the crash
An extremophile is defined as an organism that thrives in and may even require physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are detrimental to the majority of life on Earth. Extreme workers fit this description, as many seem to gain strength from conditions that would quickly grind down most other workers. For example, nearly 70 percent of extreme jobholders said they love their jobs, and almost two-thirds admitted their extreme pressure and pace was largely self-driven.
People holding extreme jobs are like drug addicts – many describe their work as literally intoxicating and say they actually get an adrenaline rush from their fast paced, high pressure environments. But as with habitual drug users, the positive effects of their habit conceal some nasty downsides, which can wreak havoc on their personal lives.
For example, a majority of extreme jobholders said their positions interfered with their ability to maintain a home, have a strong relationship with their children, have a strong relationship with their spouse/partner, and have a satisfying sex life. These sound disturbingly like the typical side effects of other types of addiction like alcohol, drugs, and gambling.
So what then do people get out of being in an extreme job? The top reasons for loving these jobs differ according to gender. Both men and women listed stimulation and challenge and high-quality colleagues as their top reasons for loving their jobs. High compensation, recognition for their work and power/status were the next three factors cited by men. Women however rated power/status and recognition higher than compensation.
Is this tradeoff really worth it – do the benefits of extreme jobs outweigh the costs? I don’t think so. And it’s a further tragedy that so many people have to make this kind of tradeoff to begin with. Why can’t more people have both a fulfilling career and a healthy and happy personal life?
Desperately seeking sustainability
Perhaps the scariest thing about extreme jobs is not the number of them but their concentration and influence. Some industries such as investment banking, consulting and the legal profession are dominated by extreme positions. In many other industries, the higher up you go in the organization the more likely to find these types of over-the-top jobs and people. This is dangerous because many corporate leaders view these types of jobs as critical to company performance and they become the benchmarks and tone-setters for the rest of the organization.
Extreme jobs attract extreme people – type A’s are typically drawn to these positions. And extreme people in critical roles create an extreme corporate culture that value putting one’s job over family, relationships and personal life. The people working in these jobs eventually burn out and in many cases their personal lives come crashing down around them.
And most of them know it – more than 69 percent said they believed they would be healthier if they worked less extremely and 48 percent of men and 57 percent of women do not want to continue working at this pace and with this intensity for more than a year. And only 24 percent (27 percent men, 13 percent women) expect to be working at this pace in five years.
The bottom line is that extreme anything, no matter how good in the short run, will inevitably lead to bad consequences over the long term. Willing holders of extreme jobs need counseling not kudos for taking their work to such an excessive level. Many need to go into occupational rehab to sober up and get clean, so that they can start living and working sensibly again. And employers that force or enable extreme work need to rethink their priorities – those that live by the motto of performance at any cost are likely to get exactly that.
Do you work in an extreme job and/or extreme work environment? What are the pros and cons in your view? Please e- mail Tony DiRomualdo at tony@nextgenerationworkplace.com to share your experiences and perspectives.
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Tony DiRomualdo is a researcher, author, consultant and founder of Next Generation Workplace. His work focuses on how changes in workforce trends and demographics, global business dynamics, talent management practices, and information technology-enabled tools and capabilities are transforming the workplace. He helps individual leaders and teams to create Next Generation Workplaces.
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