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Is Your Extreme Job Killing You?

August 22, 2007

On July 23rd Fortune ran a story detailing how stressed out executives are turning to meditation to help them cope with “hellish hours and info overload.” Massage centers around the country are newly packed with the C-suite crowd.

But it’s not just the C-suite. Driven by globalization and always-on communication technology, increasing numbers of high echelon workers are giving huge amounts of their hearts and minds to the job. A recent study shows that 45% of managerial workers in large corporations now have “extreme jobs” — they work an average 73 hours a week and deal with additional performance pressures that range from 24/7 client demands to grueling travel schedules (see “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek”). Workloads are not only heavy — they’re unrelenting. Vacation has become stigmatized — in many corporations contenders for the big bucks or the corner office don’t feel they can take time off. The survey data show that almost half of all extreme workers take fewer than ten days vacation a year. Nearly 60% don’t take what they are entitled to.

Despite these stresses and strains, jobs at the cutting edge of today’s knowledge economy are powerfully alluring. In the words of one BP executive: “I love my job. Riding this wave of expansion in Asia — being part of the reason a country takes off — is enormously exciting.” A Deutsche Bank executive I interviewed is even more graphic. “My work gives me this adrenalin rush. Like a drug, it’s irresistible and addictive.” The data show that fully 76% of extreme workers love their jobs. Very few feel exploited or put upon by a big boss. Rather, a majority (67%) see the pressures of their jobs as “self-inflicted.”

Freely chosen or not, these pressures exert a heavy toll — wreaking havoc in intimate lives and undermining health and well-being.

Close to 50% of extreme workers are so depleted and drained when they get home at night that they’re speechless — incapable of conversation. This can be rough on partners and spouses.

The impact on health is serious. The research details links between extreme jobs and chronic insomnia, weight gain, infertility, and heart problems. The connection between vacation (or lack thereof) and heart attacks is particularly eye-catching. Researchers at SUNY Oswego and the University of Pittsburgh have found that among male employees, taking an annual vacation cuts the risk of a fatal heart attack by 32%. Among female employees this figure rises to 50%. Taking time out isn’t just a piece of self-indulgence. It’s a life saver.

Corporations, worried about “burnout” and high turnover rates, are getting into the business of taming extreme jobs. The new programs range from nap breaks (Nike), to creating half a day a week that’s “communication free” (Intel), to an internal consulting pool that offers valued employees a reduced hour schedule for a period of two years (Amex.) The logic behind these new initiatives is twofold. Providing respite from hellish hours reduces “flight risk” among key talent, while reducing information overload promotes creativity and innovation.

Are you an extreme worker? Is your company doing enough to address burnout?

Creativity Under the Gun (HBR Article)
Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek (HBR Article)
Toxic Emotions at Work and What You Can Do About Them (Paperback)
Keeping Your Most Valuable Women in Your Workforce (Conference)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation and the founder of Hewlett Consulting Partners LLC.