Skip to main content

For many, a sense of purpose makes job stress worthwhile

By Marci Alboher, Special to CNN
updated 4:37 PM EST, Sat January 12, 2013
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
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT