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The 9 Most Stressful Jobs—And Why People Do Them

If you’ve ever woken to your alarm blaring at the crack of dawn and thought “not again,” you’re not alone. Stress, depression, and anxiety are, unfortunately, part of the human condition—and some jobs cause all of them.

In 2018, the collaborative work management platform Wrike surveyed more than 1,600 U.S. and U.K. employees about stress in the workplace. Their findings show that some 94 percent of workers report feeling stress at work, and almost a third say their stress level is high to unsustainably high.

The World Health Organization defines job stress as “the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.”

It’s worth noting that the concept of job stress is often confused with challenge, but they’re not the same. Challenge typically energizes us psychologically and physically, and in a work setting, it often motivates us to learn new skills and better manage our jobs.

When we overcome a challenge, we feel relaxed and productive. And we can leave work knowing that we’ve made a positive and worthwhile contribution to our organization and our personal development.

However, when a challenge turns into job demands that don’t match our capabilities, resources, and needs, those positive feelings can easily turn into stress—and set the stage for illness, injury, and even career failure.

Without a doubt, almost every job has its brand of stress—but let’s face it, some jobs are far more taxing than others. To find out what they are, we looked at U.S. News and World Report’s list of the Most Stressful Jobs in the U.S.

The report was formed in part from their 100 Best Jobs rankings, which analyzed data about salary, unemployment rate, and stress to select the top jobs of 2020.

The Most Stressful Jobs in the U.S.

Ready for a dive into some seriously stressful occupations? If at any point your reading gets the best of you, we recommend taking a moment to count backward from ten, meditate, or let out a good old-fashioned primal scream.

1. Surgeon

  • Median pay: $255,110
  • Education needed: Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 7 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: Welcome to a field where anything less than an unstoppable work ethic isn’t an option. Surgeons do work hard, yes, and they work long hours too—anywhere from 50-60 hours per week, not including the time they spend on call. Add in their need for extreme precision and attention to detail, and the responsibility to make split-second decisions when facing life or death consequences, we’d say this line of work comes with its fair share of pressure.

2. Lawyer

  • Median pay: $120,910
  • Education needed: Juris Doctor (JD) degree
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 6 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: This profession offers a grab bag of deadlines, billing pressures, client demands, long hours, changing laws, isolation, and opposing counsels. While more specific stressors may depend on the type of law they practice, the legal world’s demands tend to put lawyers in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode in which they’re constantly on guard but trained to never show vulnerability.

3. Bartender

  • Median pay: $22,550
  • Education needed: No formal education required
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 8 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: Fill a shaker with ice. Add one part “the owner’s friends just showed up expecting free drinks,” one part “repetitive stress injuries from all the walking, stooping, and bending,” and two parts “the barback’s taking shots with the customers and it’s barely 4 pm.” Shake until cold. Strain into a martini glass, garnish with a twist of lime peel, and serve it to some guy you’ve never seen before who clearly wants to fight.

4. Paramedic

  • Median pay: $34,320
  • Education needed: High school diploma at the minimum, plus CPR training and EMT-Basic certification
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 7 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: What if you could make a living out of dealing with extremely emotional and often high-risk situations? Well, you can. Like any first responders, paramedics are among the occupations that not only deal with death and destruction daily but also run the risk of internalizing them. They also may also operate in 24-hour shifts, which can cause them to avoid eating or sleeping regularly.

5. Patrol Officer

  • Median pay: $61,380
  • Education needed: High school diploma at the minimum. A bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, or a certain number of postsecondary education credits is often preferred.
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 5 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: The stressors that police and patrol officers typically face include constant threat, frequently restricting and conflicting regulations, and sometimes, public criticism. Irregular work schedules and a lack of rehabilitation agencies come with the badge too. But possibly worst of all is police and patrol officers’ tendency to fear being viewed as weak or unable to handle the job. This fear prompts many officers to deny the stress they’re experiencing—and ultimately ensure it goes unrecognized and unacknowledged.

6. Anesthesiologist

  • Median pay: $267,020
  • Education needed: Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 4 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: Anesthesiologists who do their jobs well are often forgotten by patients who were asleep during the procedure, making the job a potentially thankless one. At the same time, while patients may forget a job well done, they will remember a problem, which means that most anesthesiologists can expect to be named in litigation at some point during their careers. When things go south in surgery, they have a responsibility to be ready to take the proper action instantly. If they fail to be vigilant, they run the risk of losing a patient in the time it takes to cross an operating room floor.

7. Physician

  • Median pay: $203,880
  • Education needed: Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 8 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: Physicians’ days are filled with often intense encounters with sick, scared or hurting people. This schedule makes their work environment draining, and one that is often compounded by little training on how to maintain boundaries with patients, let alone deal with constant suffering. On top of the stress of care, physicians face the hassles of call rotation, the politics associated with healthcare organizations and insurance groups, and the seeming impossibility of reconciling family and professional demands.

8. IT Manager

  • Median pay: $142,530
  • Education needed: Bachelor’s degree
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 11 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: What makes being an IT manager so unattractive? As downsizing rises in the tech industry, so does the expectation for these professionals to act as players and coaches simultaneously, both performing and overseeing work. It often results in an unworkable range of responsibility that reduces IT managers’ effectiveness and pushes them to see their jobs as frustrating and unfulfilling. Messy backend systems, exhausting deadlines, and constant cyber-threats don’t help—and neither does Phil from accounting, who keeps trying to torrent the “Men in Black 3” soundtrack.

9. Financial Manager

  • Median pay: $127,990
  • Education needed: Bachelor’s degree at the minimum. A master’s degree in business administration, finance, accounting, or a related field is often preferred.
  • Projected job growth by 2028: 16 percent
  • Why they’re stressed: The world of finance is filled with stressors, from regulatory compliance to new business demands. Financial managers, in particular, feel the pressure to perform from clients, employers, peers, and even from themselves. What’s more, their efforts to ensure their employers’ financial well-being can become detrimental and even addictive when monitoring their funds’ performance, even for those working for organizations with a long-term investing approach. It can create a roller coaster-like experience that evokes feelings of euphoria when they’re outperforming and a sense of anxiety when they’re underperforming.

Why Do People Choose Stressful Jobs?

While some people are simply drawn to work that may seem dauntingly stressful to their peers, others may choose a profession for growth opportunities, workplace perks, or a multitude of other reasons. We’ve thought up a few here.

Meaningful work

Paramedics are one example of a career that people may be attracted to out of a sense of duty or community, or who value projects that have a positive impact on the world.

The same is true for marriage and family therapistsclinical social workers, and mental health counselors, occupations that made it to the later half of U.S. News’ list of most stressful jobs.

In this sense, it’s easy to assume that those who are committed to making our communities safer, healthier, and more equitable aren’t deterred by the fact that their work will likely come with stress. It’s likely that you’ll hear them refer to their profession as “their calling” or say that they couldn’t “imagine doing anything else.”

Opportunities to thrive under pressure

People who thrive on the pressures inherent to high-stress jobs and are willing to put themselves in immediate danger might choose a job like a paramedic or a patrol officer. Others working as surgeons, anesthesiologists, or lawyers may love the challenge of say, a radical procedure or high-profile court case. They may perform best with a strict deadline approaching or when something is at stake.

Comfortable pay

Money might not be able to buy you love, but in the case of many careers on this list, most people would be willing to choose it over career satisfaction. The typical salaries of physicians, IT managers , and financial managers may be regarded as ones that can provide for a family or pay off student debt more quickly. Even for those who don’t have immediate financial obligations, a cushy paycheck may simply make the stress worth it.

Job security

With the assurance of job security slowly disappearing in today’s job market, careers known for offering stable employment are increasingly difficult to find. Those working in education, government, law enforcement, and healthcare typically have the highest levels of job security. Generally speaking, the benefits of job security range from the comfort of a steady paycheck and dependable health coverage to a greater likeliness of sharing a mutual desire with your employer to work together. Professionals who benefit from job security are also more likely to feel valued within their organization and in control of their future.

Psychopathy

No, really. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Business Ethics reports that people with primary psychopathy—those who commit antisocial acts due to a lack of empathy or fear—not only fare better under abusive management styles than non-psychopaths, they thrive in stressful contexts.

These conclusions were drawn after researchers conducted two studies with 419 working adults. In one study in which participants were asked to react to profiles of managers depicted as constructive or abusive, participants who were high in primary psychopathy reported feeling happier after imagining themselves working for an abusive manager.

In the second study, participants rated how abusive their supervisors were in terms of rudeness, the tendency to gossip, and failure to give credit, maintain privacy, and break promises. Once again, those high in primary psychopathy reported feeling more positive and engaged than compared to their non-psychopathic peers.

“Many people leave their jobs when they work for an abusive supervisor,” said Lauren Simon, an Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas and one of the researchers behind the study. “If abusive leadership does not bother—and perhaps even excites—individuals high in primary psychopathy, then these individuals may be more likely to remain with the organization.”

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