Before Barbara Agoglia left her job as a director in American Express' small business unit, she was on the verge of burnout. Aside from logging upward of 50 hours per week, she had a 90-minute commute to and from northern Westchester and had to be reachable to clients nearly 24-7.
The breaking point came when her son started kindergarten and she didn't have time to wait with him at the bus stop. "The hamster-on-the-wheel analogy is the best way to describe how I felt," she says. For Agoglia, quitting felt like her only option.
It's a feeling shared by many Americans who know that simply working hard isn't enough anymore. To get ahead, a 70-hour work week is the new standard. What little spare time is left is often divvied up among relationships, kids and sleep.
Just how bad have things gotten? That's the subject of Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek, a recent study from the Center for Work-Life Policy. The study found that 1.7 million people consider their jobs and their work hours extreme, thanks to globalization, BlackBerries, corporate expectations and their own Type A personalities.
No industry is immune. According to the report, extreme jobs can be found throughout the economy — from retail to media to Wall Street.
But this extreme and exhausting trend is taking its toll. Some 50 percent of top corporate talent are heading for the door and such turnover can be expensive. That may explain why Agoglia's employer, American Express, offered her an enticing alternative to quitting: Work half the hours for a newly formed in-house consulting team on the small business side.
It's part of the company's effort to allow people to dial down instead of just quitting. It's a win-win situation because Agoglia gets high-profile projects but is able to juggle work more easily with her family life. American Express doesn't have to outsource projects and their in-house staff remains loyal and committed.
Like Agoglia, Carolyn Buck Luce has an extreme job. As a senior partner at Ernst & Young, she regularly flies to India and China and typically works 60-hour weeks and has four kids. That's why she identified with the study she co-authored with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. "We wanted to explore how the work model has sped up and how that impacts workers, says Buck Luce, also chair of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, a Center for Work-Life Policy committee.
What Hewlett and Buck Luce found in their survey was that workers were themselves to blame. Many of the people interviewed for the study say they love their jobs and are reluctant to lessen their work load. In Agoglia's case, working for the small business consulting group was exactly what she wished for. Now she only comes into the office on a need basis. "It offers an opportunity for someone like me who needs more breathing room," she says, "but it also fulfills my desire to be challenged in my job."
That kind of fulfillment has its hazards. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said their work pressures are self-inflicted but say it is taking a real toll on them individually. Nationally, 70 percent, and globally, 81 percent, say their jobs undermine their health in terms of exercise, diet and the impact of stress. Nationally, 46 percent, and globally, 59 percent, say it gets in the way of their relationships and nationally, 50 percent, say it affects their sex life.
Not surprisingly, men and women have a different take on the extreme nature of their jobs. In the global survey, 58 percent of men and 80 percent of women say they didn't want to work these hours for more than one more year. Says Buck Luce: "For women there's a flight risk. But men get burned out and are able to stick with it. There's a tremendous stigma for men who say, 'I can't do this.' That means there aren't going to be women at the top ranks of companies."
What's the solution? That's up to individual companies to figure out, says Buck Luce.
"The future belongs to companies that are most innovative," she says. "If you can't protect and nurture top talent over their life, you'll lose."
© 2012 Forbes.com