Employees in Stressful Jobs Balance Demands with Helping Others

Airline pilot, firefighter, police officer among 'most stressful' jobs of 2018

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie January 29, 2018
Employees in Stressful Jobs Balance Demands with Helping Others

High blood pressure alert: Firefighters, police officers and airline pilots may have the most stressful jobs in this country, according to a new survey. But if you're a hair stylist, a medical sonographer or a university professor, it's likely you're sleeping pretty well at night.

So says a recent survey by CareerCast, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based company that hosts an online job search portal and publishes career management and HR advice.

"The amount of stress a worker experiences can be predicted, in part, by looking at the typical demands and crises inherent in his or her job," wrote the authors of the survey by CareerCast, which publishes an annual Jobs Rated report on the most stressful and least stressful jobs in the U.S.

View Full List of Most Stressful Jobs

CareerCast's ranking system considered 11 job demands that can be expected to cause stress:

  • Amount of travel required.
  • Potential (or lack of potential) for growth.
  • Physical demands.
  • Working conditions and environment.
  • Hazards.
  • Requirements to interact with the public.
  • Competitive nature of the job.
  • Risk of a worker's injury or death.
  • Risk of another's injury or death.
  • Severity of deadlines.
  • Extent to which one works in the public eye. 

Since travel and working conditions were among the demands considered, it's perhaps not surprising that being an airline pilot was considered the third most stressful job.

"Airline pilots log thousands of miles in the course of a workweek, live in hotels for long stretches, and have to deal with the stress of navigating airports," said Kyle Kensing, online content editor at CareerCast. "A recent study by the Journal of Environmental Health finds that airline pilots have a higher rate of depression than the general population."

The four most stressful jobs, according to CareerCast, are military enlistee, firefighter, airline pilot and police officer—in that order.

"Firefighters, police officers, enlisted military personnel and airline pilots are all careers in which people face common fears every single day," the report authors wrote.

So why would people go into such work?

"In the case of many of the most stressful jobs, people are attracted to the profession because of a sense of duty or community," Kensing said. "Firefighting is dangerous, and most people understand why, and that includes those who enter the profession. But they do so to have positive impacts on the world around them.

"The same motivates people to enlist, or to become police officers. The same is true for many in journalism, which is represented twice in the most stressful list with reporter and broadcaster [the sixth and seventh most stressful jobs, respectively]. There's motivation in doing work others do not want to that helps improve a community."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Reporters, broadcasters and public relations executives—the eighth most stressful job—deal with high public visibility and strict deadlines, the report authors noted. "Nearly three-quarters of the American population is estimated to suffer from public speaking anxiety, so with that in mind, one could understand how these careers are high stress," they wrote. 

But the stress endured by public relations executives isn't necessarily bad, said Heather Kelly, CEO of SSPR, a public relations agency with offices in Chicago, Colorado Springs, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

"Stress has a negative connotation," she said. "Being in PR … certainly can be stressful. It takes a certain kind of person to want to have that feeling every day. I see stress as an opportunity and a challenge to push myself to be better, to get more done and to achieve something I've never done before. The idea that every morning … when I put my feet on the floor, I have absolutely no idea what my day might entail, well, frankly, that feels amazing."

Moreover, she said, being the CEO of any organization "should be stressful if you're invested in doing it right."

"I'm responsible for the livelihood of my employees and the reputation of our clients' brands. The decisions I make about the direction of our business and how we operate directly impact the lives of my employees and their families. That's a lot of responsibility."

Least Stressful Jobs Still Not a Walk in the Park

So what makes a job "low stress"?

A diagnostic medical sonographer, which CareerCast ranked as the least stressful job of all, "does not work in the public eye, face imminent risk of bodily harm to oneself or one's patient, and will not typically deal with high travel or workplace hazards," the report authors noted.

"When searching for a profession with low stress, it's important to keep in mind the job's growth outlook," the report authors wrote. "While being a jeweler is a low-stress profession, it has a negative growth outlook of -3 percent. On the other hand, operations research analyst, which comes in as the ninth least stressful job, has a 27 percent growth outlook."

View Full List of Least Stressful Jobs

And the stress that a worker experiences in a job may reflect just how much choice that person had in choosing the job. 

"There are many reasons that people select their careers—passion, interest, money, necessity, among other things," said Eric Knudsen, senior analyst for people operations at Namely, which offers HR software and services to midsize companies. "Jobs that provide a sense of meaning and purpose to employees can be hard to find. A 2014 report from the Energy Project found that half of employees lack meaning and feelings of significance at work. However, achieving this sense of meaning matters quite a lot. When people do not have the flexibility of choice, they may not be in a high stress job," but the lack of choice may nonetheless be stressful.

"The truth is, no job is ever going to be free from stress," the authors noted. "With 2017 studies by the American Psychological Association showing that Americans are more stressed than at any time in the previous decade, reducing stressors as much as possible may be more important now than ever before."

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