Thursday, Dec. 7 | When I first heard the term “extreme job,” I assumed it referred to hazardous occupations like big-wave surfing and coal mining. But in the 21st century global economy, extreme jobs have nothing to do with physical danger to one’s health – unless you count wear and tear from 90-hour workweeks, bitter relationships and constant international travel.

In “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek,” published Dec. 5 in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce report on an emerging trend in “all-consuming careers,” or the “American dream on steroids.”

Hewlett is president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York. Luce chairs the center’s Hidden Brain Drain Task Force and is the global pharmaceutical sector leader for Ernst & Young in New York.

Their research began in February 2004 as an effort to map the shape and scope of high-level, high-impact jobs in variety of fields including banking, technology, manufacturing, and the law. The work involved two large surveys, numerous focus groups and interviews with professionals at the top of their game. The kind of people whose workday involves managing employees in three time zones and jetting around the globe for intense negotiations.

As a freelance journalist, this kind of schedule confounds me. I’m not someone who wants to work long hours and jet around the globe. I’ve never owned a Blackberry or a Treo or a Palm and I don’t want to. Who wants to get Blackberry Thumb? (The report notes that Hyatt hotels are now offering Blackberry balm hand rubs in their spa packages to deal with aching thumbs.)

So I’m not a workaholic. But I’m fascinated by the world of these new “extreme workers” and the fact that our society insists on glorifying them. For the purposes of this study, an extreme job requires 60 hours of work per week or more, offers high earnings and has at least five of the following characteristics: unpredictable flow of work; fast-paced work under tight deadlines; inordinate scope of responsibility that amounts to more than one job; work-related events outside regular work hours; availability to clients 24/7; responsibility for profit and loss; responsibility for mentoring and recruiting; large amount of travel; large number of direct reports; and physical presence at workplace at least 10 hours per day.

Of course, there have always been workaholics, but Hewlett and Luce say today’s workaholics are different in part because there are simply more of them.

“No longer the pitiable drones and graspers of society, today’s overachieving professionals are recast as road warriors and masters of the universe,” The report says. “They labor longer, take on more responsibility and earn more extravagantly than ever before – and their numbers are growing.”

The 40-hour workweek is essentially a quaint practice of the past when a professional person could work 9 to 5 and expect to ascend the ranks with a reasonable level of security and compensation. Even a 60-hour workweek is considered part-time in some circles. The study found that 62 percent of high-earning people work more than 50 hours per week, 35 percent work more than 60 percent and 10 percent work more than 80 hours per week. Combine these numbers with a one-hour commute and you have a lot of people leaving their house at 7 a.m. and getting home at 9 p.m. every day.

Meanwhile, among the set of workers whose jobs can be classified as “extreme,” 56 percent work more than 70 hours per week and 9 percent work 100 hours or more.

Vacations are also taking a back seat to outsized work ethics. Among extreme-job holders, 42 percent take 10 or fewer vacation days per year – far less time than they are entitled to – and 55 percent have canceled vacation plans “regularly” because of unexpected work. What’s interesting is that these same people say their bosses aren’t pressuring them to avoid and cancel vacations. They do it because their passion and commitment to their work trumps everything else in their life.

Which brings us to another unique aspect of the extreme-job crowd: they love everything about it, including the hours, the pressure and the competition. I’d take comfort in the fact these smug workaholics have marital problems and trouble connecting with their kids if it weren’t such a sad commentary on our society’s direction.

It’s sad because it’s not just about people being lucky enough to love what they do for a living. It’s about a culture that idolizes workaholics so much that people who prioritize their families are looked on as slackers. It’s about a culture that glorifies technology to the point that it’s not okay to turn off your cell phone or BlackBerry.

The report says the extreme job culture is driven not only by globalization, competitive pressures and easy connectivity, but by an extreme “ethos” made popular by extreme sports and reality television where ordinary people are tested by extraordinary circumstances. Hewlett and Luce say survey comments on family and personal issues show that this new work ethic has some serious downsides. More than 69 percent of respondents reported that they would be healthier if they worked less, 58 percent think their work hurts relationships with their children; 46 percent say their job causes marital difficulties; and 50 percent say their jobs make it impossible to have a satisfying sex life.

Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a free-lance writer living in Point Loma. Please contact her directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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