Why “I Go To Extremes” Wasn’t Just a Billy Joel Song Title to Me

How many of us have a 40-hour work week at our current job? Wow, check out the lack of hands going up at that question! Well, everyone can stop laughing. Looks like we’re not alone. According to the December 2006 Harvard Business Review, it’s estimated that 1.7 million Americans have “extreme jobs.” An “extreme job” is defined as “high pressure positions that require 70 hours or more a week.”

Geez! All us accountants are “extreme”?!? And we all thought that 70+ hour work weeks was called “tax season” and are what it took to get recognized, promoted, etc.

Doesn’t it have a nice ring to it, though? “Extreme jobs.” Seems the United States is a culture that thrives on “extreme” everything – from TV shows (Extreme Makeover – Home Edition) to sports (extreme Frisbee, anyone?), if it’s “extreme” – Americans embrace it.

But why do we continue to do it – even after the promotions, raises, recognition? Why are there those of us who feel the need to work 70, 80, 90 hours a week after the raises push compensation packages into the 6 figure range – placing them in the top 6% of American salary earners?

For most people, it’s just their personalities. Most accountants are Type A people. To quote Sir John Gielgud in Arthur, “It’s what we live for…” Others, it’s the trill of working excessively long hours. Yeah, some do find a thrill here that others (myself included) just don’t see. And, I’m sure, many find those increasingly larger paychecks very alluring! The Harvard study shows the majority of these “extreme” employees love it. Yep, they claim that there doesn’t appear to be too much employee resentment (notice there’s no mention of the family’s reactions to these long hours.)

Now, I’m not going to question the choices made by “extremers.” Having spent almost 15 years in accounting and finance, I’ve been “extreme.” Of course, my husband and children will be the first ones to tell you how much they hated it. Long hours in the office, coupled with constant cell phone calls during dinner and e-mails all weekend tend to make even the most supportive families resentful.

Of course, I didn’t see how bad this all was until I was grocery shopping at 7:00am on a Saturday (because I just didn’t have any other free time) while discussing monthly and quarterly P&L statements with the president of my company.

Not too long after this did I begin to realize how wrong it all was. Yes, the money, power, and prestige were nice. But at what cost? I was constantly breaking out in hives (from the stress), I was pushing family obligations to the back burner (come on – grocery shopping at 7:00 am on a SATURDAY?!), I was hardly seeing my kids (and boy did they let me know it!), and my husband joking about talking more to my office’s receptionists than with me. Yes, I was in full-blown burnout.

At the time, we were renting a house in a very ritzy suburb of New York City (Greenwich, CT) and knew we couldn’t afford to stay if I wasn’t going to continue to be an “extreme” employee. Three months later, we moved into an incredible house in a very middle class suburb of Cleveland, OH – Mentor, where I actually spent the bulk of my childhood. Not only did our mortgage become one-third of what we were paying for rent, I could finally wind down my “extremeness.” Granted, I still work 60 + hours a week, but it’s on my terms. I own my own executive recruiting firm. There is no one to complain that I’m taking a half-day off, to help with my older two daughters’ classrooms. And if I choose to take an hour off and attend a tea party hosted by my 4 year old daughter, who’s going to yell? And if my 19 month old daughter is having a rough night sleeping, there’s no “tsk tsk” from other “extremers” because I’m not starting to work until 9:00am.

A lot of companies are trying to combat “extreme employee burnout.” That’s why more and more firms every day are offering concierge-style services, like dry cleaning pick up and delivery, on site child care, and massage therapists on salary. They are hoping these incredible employees won’t do what I did back in 2004 – burn out and run away like the wind. It’s because these companies are now listening to their human resource managers. These managers know that it’s increasingly difficult to replace an “extreme” employee. Let’s be realistic here – how many new employees are going to devote themselves to an organization knowing that the previous employee hit burnout and fled? Companies are forcing employees to utilize their vacations. Some firms even offer to occasionally cover the costs for a spouse to go along on certain business trips. And we’ve all seen the upswing in telecommuting and flextime.

Would all these perks have encouraged me to stay at my old position? Probably not. While I loved my job (and the two offices that came with it – one a corner office on Park Avenue in the Upper West Side of NYC and another waterfront office in Greenwich, CT), enjoyed working with my coworkers (some of the hardest working people I have ever met), and the pleasure of working for one of the most brilliant minds around, none of this could ever make up for the looks of relief and gratitude on my family’s faces when they realized that they really did come first.

Plus, there’s a lot to be said for not breaking out in hives during the past three years!

Hailing from the metropolitan New York City area, Mary Stewart McGovern spent the first 15 years of her career in accounting and finance. After relocating to Northeast Ohio two years ago, she craved a career change. Deciding to merge her flair for networking, strong desire to help others, and her solid accounting and finance background, she decided to try her hand at recruiting. Mary started her “second” career in recruiting by working with a highly regarded executive recruiting firm in Cleveland, Ohio.