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Thursday, December 15, 2020

Corporate Athletics

There was an article in Fast Company in April 2005 called "Extreme Jobs." The writer interviewed people who claimed to enjoy—even seek out—work where 100-hour weeks are the norm: investment bankers, management consultants and professionals in manufacturing and software development.

The comparison with people who play extreme sports was obvious. These people are exhilarated by the risks they take and the hours they keep. In the article, the word "addiction" kept appearing. One bond-trader talked of "re-wiring" her body to wake two or three times every night to check on market activity. Another explained he could only sleep three hours a night after a hectic business trip from Europe to South America, then back to several cities across the USA. It seems he only sees his girlfriend briefly between mutual trips away (she has a similar job and schedule) and resorts to "phone sex" in between times.

There's no doubt that extreme sports have a hold on some people. Even in conventional sports, top athletes can have brutal training regimes. But that's the point. They choose to live the way they do and something seems to them to make it worthwhile: the fame, the money, even the regular adrenaline "highs" such antics produce. What's worrying is when this spills over into becoming an expectation: a norm for everyone, including those who haven't chosen to accept such extreme pressures. Throughout the developed world, working hours are getting longer, as corporations ax jobs and redistribute the work to those who remain. A 40-hour week is becoming unusual, with 60-70 hour weeks common for many professionals.

Extreme athletes accept the risks to their health. What they choose to do is inherently dangerous. Top sports people frequently suffer injuries and breakdowns linked to the level at which they play. But while multiple knee surgeries may be simply an occupational hazard to a world-class tennis player, you don't expect a local club novice to accept the same risk.

Yet that's what is happening in the business world. Extreme corporate athletes may relish what they do, but the corporation quickly seems to expect everyone else to join them at the outer edges of what human beings can handle. That's why burn-outs and breakdowns are on the increase, and more people than ever are suffering work-related stress and health problems.

This is not sustainable. Since the "dot com" crash, tight labor markets and a weakened economy have allowed organizations pretty much free rein to set whatever work demands they want people to match. Hopefully, if economic times improve, they won't find it so easy.

Should we wait that long? Should it be acceptable for employers to demand whatever they can get away with? Or is it part of the duty of government, national and local, to protect people against exploitation? After all, someone has to pick up the bill for all the health and social problems these extreme work patterns are generating. And, too often, that's all of us who pay taxes. It's unrealistic to expect business voluntarily to reduce its profit potential, or step away from opportunities to get more work from its people for the same payment. That's why there needs to be a balancing force: someone who can call a halt to extreme demands on the basis that a healthy life is more important than corporate profit. It will only happen if people pressurize their politicians to take up this cause—for everyone's sake.


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Comments:
Oh no! Please don't lobby for yet another layer of nanny-government bureaucracy!

It's the bureaucracy that stresses me, not the hours!
 
Hey, I'm not in favor of still more government, nanny or otherwise, per se. But someone has to counterbalance big business interests. Whom do you suggest? Labor Unions have done a poor job of it so far.
 
I don't think Carmine was lobbying the government for anything.

I think we need *less* government, but I also think people need to step up to the plate and take more responsibility for their own lives and actions. This includes not letting huge multi-nationals treat people (or entire populations) like shit.

I think today's media does us a huge disfavor in this arena. (Hell, every arena - have you seen what passes as news these days?!)
 
I'm with you on your comments about the media, Rabbit. Since I came to live in the USA, I've been appalled by the triviality and parochialism of news broadcasts.

This isn't about government. It's about recognizing what's happening in the workplace and deciding whether society as a whole is willing to accept it.
 
It's definitely a problem, and those who seem to thrive in it place work or whatever value it satisfies (achievement, fame) above a balanced life, with its own values (health, family, relationships).

On the other side, I've also seen high level professionals fall into depression, stress because the values pushed on them to be an 'extreme' worker weren't fitting with their own internal values. In the end they either quit or devalue their old values and adopt the new ones.

Where's the solution? I'm not so sure about on a national level, but it seems to me that on an individual level each person needs to get clear on what her values are, and what she's willing to do and no longer willing to do to satisfy those values, or if those values need changing.
 
Alvin,

I think you're right on the button. I've blogged extensively on values on my other site The Coyote Within, so you might want to go there and check it out.
 
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