Alors, quel extrême êtes vous ?

Don’t blame ‘extreme jobs’ for a loss of libido
By Lucy Kellaway

Published: December 10 2006 16:08 | Last updated: December 10 2006 16:08

On the evening of my 40th birthday six couples came to dinner. Each pair was happy that night – or at least put on a decent show of seeming so. Seven years on, five out of the six couples are divorced.

Lately I have wondered if there was something in the sushi, though mostly I put it down to coincidence and bad luck.

Yet judging form the latest Harvard Business Review, there could be a more systematic explanation for marital meltdown on such an impressive scale. It seems my friends could be an example of the latest Worrying Workplace Trend: people who work too hard.

In “Extreme jobs: the dangerous allure of the 70-hour workweek” the HBR suggests that too much time spent working is resulting in not enough time for talk – or for sex. Extreme jobs, it seems, can lead to extreme divorce.

Before reading this piece I had heard of extreme sports and extreme makeovers and extreme weather systems, but the idea that jobs could be extreme was new to me. Indeed, extreme jobs are what used to be called good jobs: you spend a lot of time at the office, get paid a vast amount of money, have interesting work and a lot of responsibility. Many readers of the FT have jobs like these, as do some of my friends.

However, according to the HBR, extreme jobs are not good at all: they are damaging, unsustainable and the growing trend towards extremity in the job market is something we all should be fretting about.

One of the authors is Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the great guru of the work-life balance movement. Like most of her kind, she starts from the position that long hours are A Bad Thing. However, unlike others, she has actually bothered to test the standard view that long hours make people burnt out and miserable. She has found (which I could have told her, more or less) that on the contrary, 66 per cent of people doing extreme jobs say they love them. So far, so sublimely unworrying.

Undeterred, she set out to find a deeper, more personal fall-out from long hours. She sent researchers off with clipboards to ask impertinent questions and they came back with an interesting finding: 50 per cent of well-paid workaholics have an unsatisfying sex life and say work is to blame. This sounds bad. Though, on second thoughts, is it? The corollary must be that 50 per cent find their sex lives satisfying, which (and I’m guessing here) is surely above the global average for the age group. And the fact that those not satisfied by their sex lives blame it on their work seems like special pleading to me.

I have always assumed that people who do extreme jobs are likely to have extreme sex lives too. The same article shows that workers who do these jobs are primarily motivated by the adrenaline rush that goes with such work. Surely these thrill seekers are the very people to have a “work-hard, shag-hard” approach to life.

I have made some delicate inquiries with friends and concluded that, when it comes to the libido-suppressing activities of the working day, extreme bureaucracy and an extreme commute are far more potent than the extreme job could ever be.

Either way, the more important thing is not what extreme jobs do to one’s sex life but the effect they have on relationships.

According to the research, 46 per cent say their jobs interfere with “having a strong relationship with my spouse/partner”. But given how hard it is to sustain strong relationships anyway, this doesn’t seem too bad.

Worse is to come: after a 12-hour-plus working day 45 per cent were too tired to talk to their partners at all. But does this amount to the “dramatic under-investment in intimate relationships” that the authors fret about? Surely if you don’t say anything at the end of a hard day, you don’t have a row. And as long as you occasionally say something nice at other times then all can be well.

The important thing is not how long someone works. It is how happy they are in their work. If they are happy – and as Hewlett admits, extreme workers generally are – then relationships are likely to be happy(ish) too.

When I think of the 12 friends who made up my six couples, many work hard, but only one does an extremely extreme job: he works a 90-hour week, is powerful, influential, hugely fulfilled and handsomely rewarded. He is the only male still married. You could say that his wife hasn’t seen him for long enough since my birthday dinner to serve the divorce papers, but I don’t think that isthe only reason they are still together.

By contrast those who have got divorced have not been undone by Extreme Jobs. One was done for by Extreme Job Dissatisfaction, which is a nastier kettle of fish altogether. Another by Extreme Unemployment and a third by Extreme Alcohol Abuse. Most of them had a further element playing against them: Extreme Misjudgment over Choice of Spouse.

More plausibly the article talks of the adverse effect an extreme job can have on children though, provided that just one spouse is working to extreme, this doesn’t seem too serious.

There is, however, one interesting finding from the research that strikes a resounding chord.
The strongest reported negative fallout from Extreme Jobs is that 70 per cent report problems in “being able to maintain my home”.

From personal experience I can confirm this. Whenever I find myself working too hard, my appetite for maintaining my own home goes down the plug hole. Not only can I not be bothered to do-it-myself, I am far too tired to pick up the phone and harass a builder.

But then if the only unambiguously adverse effect of working such long hours is that one’s garden wall is falling down or that new curtains are needed for the back bedroom – one is tempted to conclude that the Extreme Job may not be quite such a Worrying Workplace Trend after all.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

Ouch. Je suis dans la catégorie : « Extreme Job Dissatisfaction » … ça craint…

Heureusement Mr Opio est dans la catégorie « Happy Extreme Worker ».

Tout n’est donc pas perdu.


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