Flexibility can help `extreme' workers and their bosses



Do you have an extreme job?

You do if you work more than 60 hours a week and meet at least five of the 10 characteristics identified in a new study by the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force of the Center for Work-Life Policy. Those characteristics include fast-paced work under tight deadlines, responsibility for profit and loss, lots of travel, availability to clients 24/7 and responsibilities amounting to more than one job.

The study published in this month's Harvard Business Review is based on two surveys; one of 1,564 top-earning U.S. workers (meaning the top 6 percent of earners) and the other of 975 managers at global companies. The researchers also conducted 14 focus groups and 35 one-on-one interviews. Both surveys have a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

The task force found that 21 percent of the high-earning workers surveyed have extreme jobs. By that estimate, the study concludes 1.7 million Americans are extreme workers.

Workaholics and long hours are not new, but the study's co-authors say today's overachieving professionals "labor longer, take on more responsibility and earn more extravagantly than ever before - and their numbers are growing."

In fact, the study's findings show that the trend is occurring across industries, including Wall Street, entertainment and media, law and in consulting and accounting.

But more men have extreme jobs than women do. That's because many female professionals won't work such long hours, even though they're not afraid of the job pressures or responsibility, according to the study. Some women shun longer hours in part because of family duties.

So, what's contributing to the growing trend?

For starters, workers who have extreme jobs love what they do. Almost two-thirds of extreme job holders acknowledge that the pressure and pace of the job is self-inflicted. Then there are other outside factors, such as increased competition, technology and global business.

"What emerges from this inquiry is a complex picture of the all-consuming career - rewarding in many ways, but not without danger to individuals and society," the study's authors say.

When asked about the effects of their extreme jobs on their health and relationships, many workers acknowledged the downsides.

For instance, 58 percent of extreme workers say they think their work gets in the way of strong relationships with their children; and 46 percent believe their extreme jobs interfere with their spousal relationships.

And over time, companies can lose out. The study found that 50 percent of extreme workers don't want to continue working under such pressures for more than a year.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, one of the study's two authors, says there are no easy solutions. "There is a sense that you almost have to protect workers against their own desire to almost self-destruct on these jobs," Hewlett says.

One solution is flexible work models, Hewlett says. For instance, instead of working traditional workday schedules, an employee could work on a certain number of deals or projects that allow for some downtime.

"Chunking out work, particularly high-impact work, allows you to maintain the crazy high standards of today's world," she says.

Send your stories, tips and questions to working@balt sun.com. Please include your first name and your city. "On the Job" is published Monday at www.baltimoresun.com. Hanah Cho's podcast can be found at www.baltimoresun. com/onthejob.

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