First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the problems at home.
Well-educated professionals, even those who have control over the hours they work, are likelier to say their jobs interfere with their personal lives. According to a new study, it's "the stress of higher status."
"It's the Mad Men idea," said study author Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, referring to the popular TV drama. "When you get more, are there consequences?"
Using data from a survey of 1,800 American workers, Prof. Schieman found that almost half bring their work home with them, and their relationships suffer because of it.
But he also discovered that those with college or postgraduate degrees are more likely to say work interferes with their personal lives. And those who succeed at work seem to have it worse. The study found that job authority, skill level, decision-making latitude and personal earnings also predicted trouble outside of the office.
"Most people would say that those should actually lower the risk for work-family conflict, but we're finding the opposite," Prof. Schieman said.
It's not just about putting in long hours. Professionals with the most control over their own schedule had the highest levels of stress.
Howard Eisenberg, a Toronto-area psychologist who has counselled CEOs and company presidents, said people who excel at their jobs are often incapable of switching off their work mode. "To achieve that level in the hierarchy requires a lot of self-sacrifice," he said. "But once they're there, it's sometimes a psychological coping mechanism to keep that engaged. Not because they have to prove anything, but because of their anxiety."
BlackBerrys and other technology keep professionals constantly connected to the office, and Dr. Eisenberg said the resulting pressure can lead to anger, depression, or drug or alcohol dependence.
It's usually a health scare that causes people to rethink their approach to work, he said. They may also do so because they made a mistake at work that illuminated their stress levels. "The warning sign can also be a spouse saying they've had it," Dr. Eisenberg said.
Gerald Butts, the CEO of conservation group WWF Canada, remembers his son being born during a particularly busy time at his previous job, as right-hand man to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. Seeing little of him, his wife decided to take the baby to visit Mr. Butts's brother, a lung cancer specialist, and his wife.
When she returned, having witnessed her brother-in-law's equally hectic schedule, she told her husband she had learned something valuable.
"It's actually got nothing to do with your job," she told him. "You're all like this."
Mr. Butts does not equate high-status jobs with high levels of stress. "I think the biggest mistake that people make in positions of leadership is not having a conscious strategy to leave your work problems at work and mentally carve out space for your personal life," he said.
His new job, which recently found him at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, is just as demanding as his previous one, but offers more control over his time.
He left the Premier's office in June, 2008, and two weeks later was woken by a massive propane explosion near his west-end Toronto home.
"Literally the first thing that went through my mind was 'Holy smokes, I've got to call cabinet office,' " he said. "Then I realized, 'Actually I don't. I'm just going back to sleep.' That was a great feeling."