Skip to main content

For many, a sense of purpose makes job stress worthwhile

By Marci Alboher, Special to CNN
January 12, 2013 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta swears in reenlisting troops in Turkey. A survey found that military jobs tend to be the most stressful.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta swears in reenlisting troops in Turkey. A survey found that military jobs tend to be the most stressful.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marci Alboher: Annual list of most stressful jobs drew attention
  • She says the right issue is whether job rewards compensate for stress
  • People who take on stressful jobs that help others report satisfaction, she says

Editor's note: Marci Alboher, is a Vice President of Encore.org, a nonprofit making it easier for people to pursue second acts for the greater good. Her latest book is, "The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Difference and a Living in the Second Half of Life" (Workman: January 2013).

(CNN) -- A recent study with a catchy headline about the most stressful jobs of 2013 found its way to the soft hour of news this week.

The annual study by careercast.com created some buzz in the online water cooler and I was asked to appear on the "Today" show to talk about it. Colleagues e-mailed me and posted on my Facebook page about where their chosen professions ranked. My media friends couldn't help noticing that public relations professionals, reporters and photojournalists all made it into the top 10 for stress.

The "study," referred to in quotes in some of the commentary, considered some logical criteria to come up with these rankings. Proximity to risk of death (yours or others'), travel, deadlines, working in the public eye and physical demands all racked up points on the stress scale. And there's no arguing that military personnel, firefighters and police officers -- all high-rankers on the most-stressed list -- are exposed to higher stakes than your typical seamstress (holder of the second-least stressful job slot).

Marci Alboher
Marci Alboher

The job that snagged the "least stressful" slot, according to the survey, was "university professor," a designation that caused outrage among people who actually hold that job. One commenter conceded that most academic jobs don't put you in personal danger (though you can argue that point), but anyone who's ever been around professors knows that faculty politics, difficult students and pressure to "publish or perish" can cause even the most calm character to crack.

We could debate whether these designations make any sense. And whether every police officer, firefighter and member of the military faces the same amount of stress.

But let's make sure we are having the right conversation. How many people choose a profession based on how high the stress level is? And how can you measure stress objectively? If you're prone to stress, perhaps you're just as likely to feel stressed out whether you work as a librarian, a massage therapist or a commercial airline pilot (No. 4 on the stress list).

People choose their line of work for a lot of reasons. For those who are committed to making our communities and the world safer and healthier for the rest of us, minimizing stress is probably not so high on their list of criteria. And it shouldn't be. Folks who choose helping jobs that may have a high level of stress are fueled by other motivators, like wanting their work to have meaning.

The most stressful jobs
Getting rid of stress
Woman abandons disabled daughter
Dogs deliver stress relief for students

They aren't deterred by the fact that their job will likely come with stress. And some people are simply by their own nature and personalities drawn to work that may be to others, dauntingly stressful. How many FBI agents do you think would prefer a gig as an audiologist (sixth-least stressful job)?

When I talk to men and women in their 50s and 60s who've decided to take on encore careers as teachers, they tell me that the work is often exhausting and stressful. They are on their feet all day, often with inadequate resources, with kids who are themselves highly stressed; even those who come from leadership roles in other sectors say they've never worked harder. Yet they almost always tell me that doing something that matters to others -- and that puts them in touch with young people every day -- compensates for the added stress.

The same is true of those tackling some of the world's most intractable problems. When I talk to Stephen and Elizabeth Alderman, whose foundation trains health-care professionals around the world to work with victims of trauma, or Judith Broder, who founded The Soldiers Project, which works with returning veterans, they rarely talk about stress. Instead they talk about how they are compelled to do what they do, because moving the needle even a fraction is better than doing nothing.

Rather than discouraging people to take on jobs that might have a lot of stress, let's instead encourage those who are designed for those jobs to do them. And let's make sure to support our friends and family members who go down these paths.

It's hard to grab headlines in the crowded space of morning television, but a good survey with a catchy title will always do that. So let's use these kinds of surveys to have the right kinds of conversations. Like why so many jobs that keep us safe and healthy, and that care for our children and the environment rarely show up on lists of the most highly compensated jobs. Now there's a conversation I'd most like to be having.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marci Alboher.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT