Extreme Jobs: Long Hours, Little Sleep & Money

David Shontz is an Orlando trial lawyer working hard and hoping to make partner at his firm. Though he lives in the vacation capital of the world, the 35-year-old Shontz rarely vacations, and he's not alone.

"Extreme jobs" with grueling hours have become a way of life for many of the nation's top income earners.

A new study in the upcoming issue of the Harvard Business Review estimates that 1.7 million Americans now hold extreme jobs. The study defined "extreme" as any job that requires more than 60 work hours per week and fits various parameters regarding work flow, travel, responsibilities away from the office and outside commitments.

Shontz says the punishing hours are unavoidable, especially when he's preparing for a trial.

"There was many a night in the last couple of months where I had been in the office since 5 or 6 a.m. and I needed to continue to work," Shontz said. "But I was so exhausted I'd leave the office at 9 at night, go home to sleep for three hours and get back up at 1 a.m. and come back in the office for another full day."

Shontz is almost never home for dinner with his wife and three children, and even breakfast at home is a rare occurence.

"He usually leaves before they get up," said Laura Shontz, David's wife.

It's a big sacrifice, but Shontz, like many people with extreme jobs, believes it's worth it.

"The kind of success I want, I don't see any other way to do it," he said.

Fifty-five percent of extreme workers in the Harvard study claimed they regularly cancel vacation plans for work reasons.

The jobs are found all over the economy -- in law and medicine, on Wall Street, in retailing and media, accounting and management consulting. Men are more likely than women to hold these jobs, which exact a harsh toll on family life.

Success Comes at a Steeper Price

Success at a high level has always demanded hard work, but technology, the globalization of work, and leaner work forces are intensifying the demands… and the hours.

"It used to be the 40-hour work week, then it was the 60-hour work week, which is now practically part time," said Catherine Orenstein of the Center for Work/Life Policy.

According to the Harvard study, 52 percent of the nation's top income earners -- those in the top 6 percent of earners and often making six-figure salaries -- work more than 70 hours a week. And 48 percent say they are working 16 hours a week more than they did just five years ago.

These top performers say it's not just long hours that define their jobs. The pace of work is faster -- there's travel, deadlines, 24-hour availability, and enough responsibility to keep several people busy.

But despite all that, the overwhelming majority say they love their jobs. For many, the financial rewards are also over the top. And researchers say many of these professionals get enormous ego satisfaction from their ability to handle the pressure. They're hooked on the adrenaline rush as well as the rich salaries.

"If you look at the culture, we're really in a culture that embraces 'extreme' today -- the concept, the phenomenon and the word itself," Orenstein said.

From extreme sports… to extreme makeovers… and this holiday season, even Extreme Elmo. Extreme Jobs are just another part of the picture.

You might think of David Shontz as Exhibit A. He says he can work another 30 years at this pace.

"God willing, yes. I plan on it," Shontz said.

The potential for burnout on these jobs is also extreme. The Harvard study revealed the dark side of working such punishing hours. High percentages of the high performers in the study said the crazy schedule took a huge toll on their family lives and even their health -- particularly because of a lack of sleep.

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