Going to Extremes — Does It Benefit Anyone?

We all know the type: workaholics; Type-A personalities; road warriors; but now we can call them “extreme workers.” As discussed in a new report by the Center for Work-Life Policy, “work for many has become the ultimate extreme sport—high level, high impact workers pushing themselves beyond their limits; working around the clock and around the globe.” It’s pretty obvious why that might not be a positive trend for workers, but does it benefit employers? How did we get here, and is it possible to reverse the trend?

Most workers are familiar with one or more colleagues (or maybe you’re one yourself) whose life revolves around work. Perhaps it’s temporary — a big project is due, a case is going to trial, or you’re angling for a promotion, but then, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. But for some people, the situation is more permanent: constant stress, long hours, no vacations, a diminished family life, no time for exercise, hobbies or relaxation — it’s just work, work, and more work.

There will always be individuals who are wired to work that way, no matter what job they’re in. As Sylvia Hewlett, author of the report, Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek (published by the Harvard Business Review and available for download) points out,

[T]hese extreme workers love their jobs, lest this become a “poor me I earn so much money” story. “They love the thrill, the meaning, the challenge, the oversized compensation packages and the brilliant colleagues.”

(See International Herald Tribune article.)

As one person who fits into the extreme worker category (working at least eleven hours a day, seven days a week as CEO of LeGourmet Gift Basket, plus being available at home on a 24-hour basis), Cynthia McKay says that her long hours are, “absolutely my choice,” adding, “I love being at work. It becomes a lifestyle as opposed to a job.” (See Christian Science Monitor article.) You’ll notice, however, that McKay is CEO of her company, which makes it much more likely that her hours contribute to her own financial success, but there are plenty of extreme workers who put in such efforts and don’t necessarily reap all the benefits.

Is it just trendy right now to be extreme? Maybe. “There’s something deep in our culture right now which really admires over-the-top pressure, over-the-top performance, over-the-top pay packages,” Hewlett says. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) And Ornstein of CWLP adds, “If you look at the culture, we’re really in a culture that embraces ‘extreme’ today — the concept, the phenomenon and the word itself,” Orenstein said. (See ABC News article, from the network who brought us Extreme Makeover.)

So you can always blame the individual worker, and as someone capable of such tendencies myself, I think it’s certainly fair to suggest there are some workers who voluntarily assume long hours and staggering workloads while deriving some personal benefit from doing so. And the study points out that there are some other factors involved, such as globalization, which requires professionals to work across multiple time zones, and communication technology that allows workers to stay in constant contact. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) But do we really think that everyone who fits the extreme worker category has chosen to embrace the workaholic life?

One factor among the news coverage of the Extreme Worker report got extremely short shrift: increased competition for high-level positions and declining job security also encourage excessive work. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) Let’s face it, if you’re an exempt employee, not subject to overtime laws, and not subject to government regulations limiting your hours (such as those for firefighters, pilots, and other public safety positions), then your employer can make you work as many hours as its wants, or configure your job responsibilities in such a way that you have no choice but to work endlessly in order to meet the minimum expectations of the job. After changes to the overtime laws in 2004, more people are exempt than ever, so doesn’t it make sense that more people than ever have to work excessive numbers of hours?

Union contracts can limit the amount of required overtime, but fewer than ever are members of unions, a relatively small percentage of white-collar jobs are unionized, and the NLRB has recently altered the definition of supervisor to limit even further who can be part of a union, so again, it’s not surprising that not many individuals can look to a union for any protection from extremes. There’s also widespread insecurity about job security, period. If you’re not willing to work 70 hours a week, there are people out there who will, who are working in jobs for far less pay pay and responsibility than they’ve been used to throughout their careers, and are in a position where they will do what it takes just to keep a job. (See Monster.com article.)

Look at some of the costs entailed:
Sixty-nine percent say their extreme jobs undermine their health, 46 percent say work gets in the way of a good relationship with their spouse, and 58 percent say it gets in the way of strong relationships with their children. (See International Herald Tribune article.) Fifty percent say their work interferes with their sex life. (See CWLP Press Release.) Fifty-five percent claimed they regularly cancel vacation plans for work reasons. (See ABC News article.)

But for some, the only cost that matters is the bottom line, and as long as these workers put in so many hours on their employer’s behalf, they’re improving the bottom line, right? Maybe not. Without good health and positive relationships with their families, how long will workers be able to keep up the pace?

“The culture that celebrates the extreme ethos today may tire of it — quite literally — tomorrow,” Hewlett writes. If so, she will need to coin another term. “Expired workers,” perhaps?

(See International Herald Tribune article.)

And will the next generation of workers stand for it? It’s already been observed that work-life balance is much more important to “Generation Y” workers in their 20s (see USA Today article). But will we have to wait until more Baby Boomers exit the workforce to see any kind of reasonable balance, or will the worker shortage expected to result when that happens force younger workers to put in more hours, whether they like it or not? Or, can we finally spread out the work so that more people are employed in meaningful, non-outsourceable jobs that take advantage of their education and ability, while receiving compensation adequate to maintain their lives and their families without working endlessly?

That is the kind of extreme idea (right now, anyway) that American workers need to fully embrace, instead of trying to themselves join the extreme worker category. If we are to ensure any kind of meaningful work-life balance, this extreme worker fad is one that needs to go the way of mood rings and disco, rather than becoming institutionalized in our workforce and exalted by employers. Employers and employees alike need to join together to set reasonable boundaries before extra offices are converted to dormitories, so that a smaller number of workers are able to work around the clock. That’s not good for anyone’s bottom line.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.