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Nina B. Zumel

What's Wrong with a Low(er)-Stress Job?

So there's this article that's been making the rounds called "The 10 Least Stressful Jobs of 2013"; perhaps you've read it. I don't normally bother with articles like that, but it came to my attention because some of my old graduate-school friends (who are professors) threw a mini-rant on social media over the fact that University Professor is the Number One least stressful job of the year, according to the article. And just now, I tripped over a blog post where a librarian takes umbrage over the fact that they also on the list.

Curiosity led me to finally skim the article in question. I won't lie, I think some of their choices are odd, and the reasoning that led to those choices is rather simplistic. But I'm not going to quibble with the article itself; frankly, I don't really care (you notice I only said "skim," not "read"). What I find interesting is that people are actually offended at being on that list.

Think about some jobs that are truly high-stress. Firefighter. Police Officer. Emergency Medical Technician. A case worker for Child Protective Services (especially with budgets the way they are now). Pediatric Oncologist. Heck, what about being unemployed? Seems pretty darned stressful to me.

A lot of high-stress occupations aren't well compensated, and many aren't particularly glamorous. I doubt that people in those professions thought to themselves, "Let's see, what's the most stressful job I can think of? I'll go do that." I think they do those jobs in spite of the stress, because of innate vocation, or passion, or the desire to make the world a better place, or whatever. If you could magically make the stress of their jobs disappear, I don't think they'd complain.

The problem is that "high-stress job" is often used as code for "challenging job for hard-working, driven people" -- which makes "low-stress job" code for "easy job for lazy people." Really, they aren't the same thing. Hard work is a virtue; stress is a disease. A disease is something you should try to alleviate, not celebrate.

Obviously, some jobs (like firefighter and police officer) are innately stressful, because they are dangerous, or because you always work in emergency conditions. And a little stress is good for you, in the sense that stress is what pumps up your adrenaline to meet an immediate challenge, or that some level of difficulty in your job is what keeps it interesting, and what keeps you engaged. But if you aren't throwing yourself in the way of bullets or into towering infernos on a regular basis, perhaps you might think about how to separate the necessary hard work from the unnecessary demands on your energy.

You know, like planning ahead and pacing yourself so you don't get caught unawares by deadlines. Saying "no" to more work when you are already overbooked. Trying not to get overbooked in the first place, to the extent you can avoid it. Figuring out how to sidestep tasks or situations or people that cause you stress or sap your energy. Or at least minimize the time you spend on such energy-drains.

Those things aren't possible one hundred percent of the time, and they are more possible in some job situations than others. If you are in a job situation where it is possible, why be ashamed of that? Take advantage of it.

Or to put it another way: job-stress often comes from having no control over your situation, or at least the perception of having no control.

Is that really how you want your career to define you -- as someone controlled by the job, not vice-versa? Or would you rather be someone who works to meet all your goals and make your mark on the world on your own terms?

I want to think of myself the second way. And if that means that people call my job "low-stress" -- even in a snarky way -- that's fine. Part of being in control is not caring about the opinions of people who are obviously wrong.

Think about it.