Sunday, May 27, 2007

Extreme Jobs

How many hours a week do you work? Do you travel? Do you supervise or mentor people? Are you required to be available to clients 24/7? Do you have to attend work-related events outside of regular work hours? Are there even such things as "regular work hours" where you work?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you might just have what Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls an "Extreme Job." In her book Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, Hewlett discusses the rise of extreme jobism as a barrier which keeps women from the executive suite, but also keeps men stressed and harried. It's true, fewer women with children hold extreme jobs than do men -- mainly because of the competing demands of work and family. Women who are also moms tend to step down, or away, from extreme jobs in an effort to find a balance in their lives.

Hewlett backs up her arguments with terrific research. In surveys, people in extreme jobs report the toll their work life takes on their health -- "more than two thirds don't get enough sleep, half don't get enough exercise, and a significant number overeat, consume too much alcohol, or rely on medications to relieve insomnia or anxiety," Hewlett finds.

But the biggest toll comes in the personal life of people with extreme jobs. Hewlett cites Arlie Hochschild's book The Time Bind, and talks about the stress on a relationship when both people work long hours at demanding jobs. "Hochchild shows that for many professionals 'home' and 'work' have reversed roles: home is where you expect to find stress -- and guilt; while work has become the 'haven in a heartless world' -- the place where you get strokes and respect, a place where success is more predictable."

Just about the same time I read Hewlett's book, the Washington Post ran an article about workaholism. Serendipitous coincidence for me, because I was able to connect some dots. The Post article suggested workaholics take a look at relationships in the family, and ask, "Do you routinely get home after the kids are in bed? Miss important family events? Do you get impatient with family members because you have so much work to do?" The Post quotes Chris Essex from the Center for Work and the Family who says that some workaholics "choose to stay at work because family is harder work. They have skills and training that allow them to be successful at work, but they don't have the skills and training to be successful at home."

See a theme here?

It seems that sometimes people use the demands of their job as a barrier to real, deep connection with others. Busy single people can't make plans with others; busy married people can't make plans with their families. Which is one big, honking way to avoid connecting with people at all.

Kinda sad, isn't it?

The rules and roles are well-defined at work -- thus giving the control freak among us plenty of comfort. At home, however, the footing's somewhat dicier, and harder to control. So, stay at work -- in the comfort zone -- or come home, where all bets are off.

If you recognize yourself in this paradigm, there are some things you can do to begin balancing your life and making deeper connections with your family and friends:

1) Start measuring yourself by a new yardstick. Rather than making your long hours and demanding schedule a "badge of honor", define yourself in other ways -- as a good parent, a good friend, a good squash player. So many times I've been in situations where one person talks about how demanding their job is only to have the next person "one-up" with how demanding their job is. If you find yourself in this kind of dueling banjos, just stop. De-escalate. You'll be doing everyone a favor if you are a walking example of a happy, balanced life.

2) If you are the boss and you demand that your staff model your driven behavior, ask yourself if that's really necessary. Do you have stressed-out people? Do you have people who are frequently ill? How's morale? Do you have high turnover? Hewlett points out that it costs one and a half times a person's salary to replace them -- it costs more the higher in the organization you go. Workaholism, then, costs you more as a manager than it likely gets you. Change the group think, and you will get happier, more productive people who like what they do -- and, as I've often found -- will stay loyal to you and your organization.

3) Get some training. Go to a couples retreat, take some parenting classes or take up a hobby. In our workplaces we get leadership training, diversity training, computer training, ethics training, team building exercises and stress management classes. Why don't we do this in our own homes? Make a "training schedule" for your non-work life, and build those skills which might be lacking. If you can find rewards from this kind of training -- more sex, more happiness, more connection, more fun (just to name a few) -- then the reward of an extreme job begins to pale in comparison. Believe me.

The bottom line is this: where you put your attention will grown more important in your life. If you put 120% of your attention on your work life, how much do you have for the rest of you? -80% is my guess. I'm not saying you can't be successful. You can be. I'm not saying you can't work hard. You can. The goal is balance. Work smart. Work efficient. Define yourself by your whole life, not just one part of it. It's in that balance that life has the most meaning. And the most joy.

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