The death of Moritz Erhardt in August 2013, a 21-year-old intern at Merrill Lynch, is a case in point of paid extreme work (Independent). However, when it seemed to be reserved for an elite profession, extreme jobs are now spreading everywhere as normal jobs.
The meaning of the term « extreme work » has changed somewhat from its original definition. Traditionally, it referred to very dangerous work such as the military. Today, this term embodies a multitude of concepts particularly long hours cultures, work intensification, ‘edgework’, and ‘workaholism’.
Nevertheless, this notion is still in development and raises many issues that widespread a general sense of working pressure (Roberts, 2007).
The essay attempts to show that paid work has become more extreme and provides an overview of the potential ethical challenges posed by this. It has been organized in the following way. The first part deals with the elements of the definition of extreme paid work and the second part examines the ethical dilemmas.
Back in 1930, Keynes predicted that people would only work fifteen hours in a week but it seems that this is still not the case today especially in highly unequal societies.
Long working hours are clearly an element that shows paid work has become extreme: a study revealed that ‘62% of high-earning individuals work more than 50 hours a week, 35% work more than 60 hours a week, and 10% work more than 80 hours a week’ (Hewlett and Luce, 2006, p.).The ‘need’ for long working hours can be explained by the neo-liberal and deregulated economy (Hermann, 2014) which is driven by the desire to own more material goods and therefore individuals have to work more hours if they want to earn more in order to afford them.
Another explanation is related to competitive pressures: individuals are forced to work more for promotion and for fear of being fired and replaced. This is the case for Fortnite employees who work in a ‘hostile’ working environment built on a ‘culture of fear’ (Independent, 2019). These pressures have led to work intensification which is another element of extreme work.
Work intensity has multiple defining features but is commonly conceptualized as the pace of work and work efforts. According to Green, this concept refers to ‘the intensity of mental and/or physical exertion during working time, measured by the quantity and difficulty of the demands of the job’ (2008, p.). For the last three decades, researches have revealed that the level of work intensity has increased. Different drivers including new forms of work organization, the rise of communication and technologies both driven by global competition (McCann et al., 2008) can enlighten this rise. Basically, the first driver is characterized by short deadlines with fewer breaks, availability to clients 24/7, a large amount of travel, unpredictable flow of work, expanding spans of responsibility (Hewlett and Luce, 2006). As for the development of communications and technologies, this has shifted people’s expectations who are in constant contact and more likely to travel more, to work from home and across times zones ‘blurring boundaries between home and working life’ (Gascoigne, Parry, Buchanan,2015). However as said by Ms. Orenstein, the society is not just ‘in an age of extreme organizational culture but also in an age of extreme culture’(Csmonitor,2006) leading to the the workaholism’ concept.
Finally, other notions as ‘edgework’ and ‘workaholism’ show that paid work has become more extreme. The term edgework is defined by Lyng (1990) and emphasizes the sensations of pushing oneself to the limits and willingness to take risks. It points to the popularity of extreme sports such as skydiving, rock climbing. The people who practice this kind of extreme sport activities, that is, people who like an extreme challenge, excitement are more likely to be engaged in extreme work. Mountain rescue, internet stock trader are just some of the examples. Similarly, extreme work can be seen as a matter of personal choice because some people feel ’the uncontrollable need to work incessantly’ (Oates, 1971) in order to feel fulfilled in their daily lives. This kind of person is identified as a workaholic. Additionally, this term has different degrees that vary according to a person\’s personality and external factors: the positive type is called work passion and the negative is work addiction. Nevertheless, the belief that extreme work is a personal choice is rejected by some researchers that see it as a product of capitalism (van Woonroy and Wilson, 2006). Hence, paid work has become more extreme and some of the ethical dilemmas posed by this are discussed in the following section.
Firstly, it seems obvious that long working hours become an ethical challenge. Numerous studies have proven that they are related to health degradation such as stress or other health problems and wellbeing deterioration (Dewe and Kompier, 2008) that can lead to the burnout. The ‘Meet Emma – Your Work Colleague of the Future’ video illustrates this point clearly through a life-size human representation by showing how people could look in 20 years’ time if they continue to work during long hours with a bad posture. For instance, workers will have a definitely hunched back, varicose veins caused by blood flow, bloodshot eyes by spending hours in front of a screen or even eczema cause by stress. In addition, long working hours are related to work-family conflicts (Lyonette et al., 2007). This can be illustrated briefly by a U.S survey that reveals the repercussions of extreme jobs for family, home and intimate life. Specifically, it shows that 65% of the men extreme jobholders think job interferes with having a strong relationship with his children rather than 33% for the women. These statistics can be explained by a second ethical dilemma which is concerned by gender inequalities.
Hewlett and Luce argue that women are at a disadvantage from the extreme work model especially for women who are mothers (2006). Basically, ‘the ideal worker’ disagrees with the women life, they cannot choose working long hours if they want to fulfil family roles. As result, ‘only 20% of women are extreme jobholders and 80% of those have one foot out the door’. What is it striking is that even if they are not afraid of the pressure or of responsibility, even if they enjoy their jobs as men do, they are pushed out the door because they are unable to work 70 hours a week. More than that, if women want to work fewer hours they can lose their professional credibility in some sectors. This is evident in the case of medicine. By way of illustration, Tsouroufli, Ozbilgin, and Smith show that women must adapt to male structures and norms in order to be taken seriously (2011). Thus, extreme work is very unsustainable for women and deepen existing inequalities. Another ethical challenge posed by extreme work is concerned with the ethical dimensions of human enhancement technologies.
There is no doubt that the change of the nature of paid work is related to the use of human enhancement technologies (HETs). Bloomfield and Dale define HETs as the possibility of working more extremely including physical or mental endurance, concentration span and other forms of performance—on a routine basis (2015). For example, thanks to the use of modafinil, workers might be able to overcome jetlag. However, while the potential opportunities and benefits are obvious for both employees and employers, so are ethical problems. The report from a joint workshop hosted by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy (2012), the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society challenges individual freedom and human integrity. Basically, individuals may see their freedom limited if HETs become normalized in the workplace because they will feel pressured to use them. Similarly, the position of humans as ‘components’ of a system rather than a ‘whole person’ is strengthened by making workers ‘beyond the norm’ and work more technological. In that respect, an increasingly lively public debate on these issues can be expected.
One of the more significant findings to emerge from this essay is that paid work has become more extreme in view of the elements that define it (long working hours, work intensification, edgework, workaholism) in a context of economic, cultural, technological and organizational drivers. The key ethical challenges are concerned by health and wellbeing degradation, gender inequalities as well as the use of human enhancement technologies which reduce the freedom and integrity of the individuals. How then to reconcile health and extreme work? The woman\’s family role and extreme work? Moreover, even enhancement could benefit employee efficiency how restrict them with the aim of protecting human sustainability? These dilemmas would be a fruitful area for further work because several questions still remain to be answered. Hence, it is worth asking whether this is acceptable and thinks about how to humanize the work in order to reduce the impact of extreme work on health, family involvement, gender equality, and human sustainability.