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The “how stressful is my job” sweepstakes


November 29, 2012
By Corrie Sloot

1194 words – MR

HEAD: The “how stressful is my job” sweepstakes

Although I have a bunch of part time contracts, commitments and projects I am largely self employed these days. Working for yourself has its advantages, but also some disadvantages. You don’t have a boss or bureaucracy to blame stuff on, for example. Mind you, you also tend not to have coffee breaks with groups of co-workers, which is when one most likes to itemize those shortcomings.Talking to yourself about your own personal failings just isn’t as much fun as trashing your boss.

I was recently reviewing literature about stress in various types of public safety employees. Guess what they’re most likely to identify as a major source of stress? I’ll give you a hint: poor food in the cafeteria did not make the top 10.

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Worrying about getting hurt by scary bad guys is pretty high on the list – likely no surprise to anyone – but right up there with the stress of worrying about having your nether regions handed to you on a platter are more generic workplace factors. Poor communication with higher-ups, unreasonable management expectations, lack of control over the work environment, role ambiguity and conflict (e.g. “what exactly am I doing here?”) and perceptions on unfairness in the workplace all make the list.

Sound familiar? While there are no doubt some unique stresses associated with policing, like most professions the stress level varies across people, organizations and locations. Is policing inherently more stressful than other jobs? That’s not an easy question to answer.

The American Institute of Stress says that it is often asked to make lists of the most and least stressful occupations but notes the rankings have little importance.

“It is not the job but the person-environment fit that matters. Some individuals thrive in the time-urgent pressure cooker of life in the fast lane, having to perform several duties at the same time and a list of things to do that would overwhelm most of us – provided they perceive that they are in control. They would be severely stressed by dull, dead end assembly line work enjoyed by others who shun responsibility and simply want to perform a task that is well within their capabilities.”

It also notes that the level of stress can vary significantly even within a given profession. The stresses that a police officer or high school teacher working in an inner city ghetto are subjected to are quite different from those experienced by people in the same occupation but working in a quiet middle-class suburb. As a result, sweeping generalizations are not particularly useful or informative (http://www.stress.org/workplace-stress/).

This issue of “fit” is, of course, one of the reasons we do pre-employment psychological assessments on police candidates. Just because you can leap high buildings in a single bound does not mean you are the definitive police candidate.

But really – aren’t you just dying to know how you rate in the “how stressful is my job” sweepstakes? I can’t really answer that question with any degree of accuracy – but I can answer a sort-of related question: in terms of mental health, are there any risky occupations and industries? The answer appears to be “yes.”

A few years ago, Alain Marchand (1) of the School of Industrial Relations at the University of Montreal looked at 77,377 workers engaged in 139 occupations and 95 industries in Canada to see who was at greatest risk of having mental health problems. He actually identified ten occupations and nine industries where there was an increased risk – and ten occupations where mental health problems were less frequent than the average.

This is a quiz: before you read any further, write down your best guesses. Ready?

The occupations with the LOWEST risk of mental health problems are:

  1. Managers in art, culture recreation and sport
  2. Managers in primary production except agriculture (I have no idea what this means)
  3. POLICE OFFICERS AND FIREFIGHTERS
  4. Optometrists, chiropractors and other health professionals
  5. Legislators and senior management
  6. Managers in manufacturing and utilities
  7. University professors
  8. Human resources and business services professionals
  9. Policy and programs officers, researchers and consultants
  10. Supervisors, processing occupations.

The highest risk:

  1. Trades helpers and labourers
  2. Cleaners
  3. Logging machinery operators
  4. Train crew operating occupations
  5. Labourers in processing and manufacturing
  6. Public works and other labourers
  7. Crane operators, drillers and blasters
  8. Machine operators in textile industries
  9. Assembly related occupations
  10. Machine operators in fabric, fur and leather products manufacturing

Who knew?!?!? If there is one thing you can learn from this list, it’s that trying to figure out stuff like this is very difficult. Also, if you are having a mental health problem, it hardly matters whether you are in a high or low risk group.

The purpose of this diatribe is to try to keep some perspective on the topic of stress in the workplace. There is no doubt that police officers are likely to be exposed to some kinds of stress – like critical incident stress – much more than other workers. (I have it on great authority that art museum curators are rarely exposed to unexpected deaths – except those that occurred a gazillion years ago in ancient Egypt).

On the other hand, there are some sources of stress that police officers are rarely exposed to compared to other occupational groups. Consider this list of factors commonly associated with a higher level of workplace stress:

• Travel
• Outlook/growth potential
• Income
• Deadlines
• Working in the public eye
• Competitiveness
• Physical demands
• Environmental conditions
• Own life at risk
• Meeting the public

Using this list, jobs like freelance photographer and lumberjack rate much higher. (I assume this means freelance photographers who go to war zones, not the ones who take your kids’ school photos – although, depending on your kids…) For all the physical demands and risks involved in policing, there is also good pay and dependable work. You generally do not have to travel a whole lot or worry about getting laid off.

What’s the take home message? Who knows. Aside from the fact this was all very interesting, I am not sure it matters. Personally, I think the take home message is that we are all people first and whatever occupation later. I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by sitting around thinking “OMG, my job is stressful and it is only a matter of time till I self destruct and it is my boss’s fault.”

We also don’t do ourselves any favours by pretending we are tough cookies and could never be affected by stress or have a mental health problem. Regardless of whether you are a police officer, psychologist or tree planter, it is worth remembering that about 20 per cent of people will at some time have a serious mental health problem.

A little prevention, introspection, coping, asking for help if we need it – all good. If you are an employer/boss type person, whether in policing or carpentry, a little attention to generic workplace factors – and the reality of mental illness – is also a good idea.

(1) From the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, vol 30 pp 272-283, 2007.