Many jobs lay claim to being the most stressful. But awarding the title is virtually impossible. For one thing, employee groups seeking more benefits for their members often make such claims, notes physician Paul J. Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress, in Yonkers, N.Y. In addition, stress is often caused by numerous environmental factors, and individuals react differently to potentially stressful situations.
“A Type A individual thrives on doing three things at once - provided that he's in control,” Rosch says. “He would be destroyed if he were put on the routine of an assembly line, but others who don't want much responsibility would find that job great.”
“Waitresses and customer service representatives are often stressed,” Rosch adds, “but such jobs - even working as a galley slave - can be made tolerable” if there is collegiality and social support among co-workers. And, he notes, the stresses of jobs can change. “Forty years ago, being a public school teacher was a respected job,” Rosch says. Nowadays, “the job as an inner-city teacher is the pits.”
Clearly, certain jobs would be stressful no matter who takes them on. Police officers consistently rank between first and fourth among professions with the highest rates of divorce, substance abuse and suicide. “The stress of police work would be bearable, even tolerable, if the police officer wasn't in a constant state of aloneness,” said a 30-year veteran officer, “a feeling that stems from the belief that no one, except another police officer, could truly understand what emotions I feel as I carry out my responsibilities.”
Some jobs ooze stress simply because of long hours and a never- ending feeling that more should be done. Lawyers are famous for their 60-80 hour weeks - and for suffering disproportionately from depression. “When you have lots of work, it's hard to set boundaries, so other parts of life become problematic, such as your health, your relationships and your family,” says Carolyn Jensen, a therapist with the lawyers counseling program at the District of Columbia Bar Association.
Moreover, Jensen says, “Because of competition, law firms today are showing no signs of letting up. They offer to have someone pick up your laundry or your prescriptions in order to keep you at your desk. The bizarre becomes commonplace, and no one bats an eye. It's particularly hard on women, who have to give up a lot to go into law.”
High financial stakes is another obvious stress producer. Bill O'Donnell, a futures trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, says “Nothing feels as bad as when the opening bell rings, and in an instant you've lost a ton of money - multiple tens of thousands, more than most people's annual salary - in one trade.”
O'Donnell says he has learned to deal with the stress of operating amid the shouting and jostling elbows of colleagues on the crowded, windowless exchange, where rapid hand signals are used to communicate trades. Despite new stresses such as the globalization of stock markets, he says, “I'm an example of someone who can isolate stress. Once that 2 o'clock bell rings, I know there is nothing I can do about anything until 7:20 the next morning.”
Few jobs are as stressful as those in which other people's lives lie in your hands. Chris Boughn, an air traffic controller on Long Island, says his worst days are during “summer storms, when we implement our severe weather avoidance plan, and the planes must go off their normal routes. We have to try to push [pilots] through these tiny holes in the storms. Some don't want to go, or they want to go left, and we have to say there's too much traffic so go to the right. It goes from the sensible to the chaotic.”
The storms mean fewer breaks for the controllers and sometimes two or three controllers crowding in front of a radar scope to make sure nothing gets missed. “We downplay the possibility of the loss of people's lives,” Boughn says. “It's a plane, a faceless voice. But the big stress is that everything you say and all the radar data is being recorded.” If there were a crash and a subsequent investigation, “all this could come back to haunt you two or three years down the road.”