Is a City trader more likely to be stressed than a librarian? Is an IT
consultant under more pressure than a teacher? Not necessarily. It depends
whether the nature of that job is changing, as Linda Pettit reports
While stress can affect anyone of any age in any job, experts agree that
no-one is immune to it. It is very difficult to diagnose accurately, as every
individual will show different symptoms.
"Stress," says the Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development (CIPD), "arises when [employees] worry that they cannot cope.
The pressures of working life can lead to stress if they are excessive or
Examples of long-term or chronic stress, says the CIPD, are the fear,
frustration and anger that may be produced by an unhappy relationship with your
boss or with a difficult customer, and the unhappiness of an unsuitable job.
"Up to a certain point, an increase in pressure will improve performance
and the quality of life. However, if pressure becomes excessive, it loses its
beneficial effect and becomes harmful," says the CIPD.
Although being stressed often has more to do with how someone reacts to
pressure than the actual job they are doing, of course certain jobs are
intrinsically stressful. People who require high levels of concentration – such
as those working in electronics or finance – are generally considered to be at
risk, as are those jobs with an important outcome be it financial or
safety-related. Employees governed by tight deadlines, those working shifts, or
those who work in confined spaces can be more prone to stress.
In 1985, Professor Cary Cooper, one of the country’s leading stress experts
and professor of organisational psychology and health at the Lancaster
University Management School, set out to find the most stressful jobs in the
UK, evaluating more than 100 jobs.
He repeated this study 12 years later, to find which jobs were becoming more
or less stressful (see panel opposite). More than 60 per cent of the 104 jobs
his team reassessed in 1997 showed increases in stress levels, particularly
those in the armed forces, social work, teaching, farming, local government,
nursing and the ambulance service.
Cooper is convinced this demonstrates that it is not the jobs themselves
that are stressful, but the amount of change a profession has undergone.
Fundamental changes, such as those seen in the teaching profession over the
past decade, the increase in the amount of paperwork associated with many jobs
in the civil service, and the annual pressures hitting the farming community
are making all these jobs more stressful.
"It is the amount of change that takes place in that job and the
individual’s perceptions about that job and what it is that makes it
stressful," says Cooper. "Particularly whether those changes mean
they have less control."
The fact that one of the most stressful professions is that of a GP, a
career that is becoming increasingly demanding, is testament to this.
GPs suffer the highest rates of psychological problems, health setbacks and
alcoholism, as well as leading the way when it comes to divorce.
"Those jobs undergoing change, such as healthcare workers, doctors and
nurses, are the stressful ones," says Cooper, adding that in the research,
those professions you might think of as stressful – such as pilots or air
traffic controllers – come out as middle-ranking, with a good match between the
people doing them and the jobs themselves.
While change in a job is difficult to avoid, it is possible to manage change
in a job to minimise the stress levels of the people doing them. As part of its
document, Intervention Strategies for Achieving and Maintaining Management
Standards on Work Related Stress, published in June, the Health & Safety
Executive (HSE) addresses the issue of change in a job by advising
organisations to explain to employees what the organisation wants to achieve
and why it is essential the change takes place. Consulting with staff is
important throughout any change process, as is involving them in the planning
process so they understand how their work fits in. Don’t delay communicating
these new developments, says the HSE, as this will block rumour-mongering.
Giving employees control over their pace of work and participation in
decision-making, particularly during a period of change, is another important
way of minimising stress, as is empowering people to make decisions about the
way they work, such as negotiating shift-work schedules. Support, adequate
training, constructive and supportive advice, regular team meetings and having
the opportunities for career development can help during change.
"Don’t make changes to the scope of someone’s job or their
responsibilities without making sure the individual knows what is required of
them, and accepts it," advises the HSE.
Cooper concedes that some jobs, such as working on a City trading floor, are
intrinsically stressful, "but individuals going into those jobs usually
like that," he says. "Traders, where a wrong decision made in a split
second could cost the company £20bn, usually love working on a knife-edge. But
if they were told they suddenly had to do more paperwork, they would find that
So what makes one person better able to cope with stress than another?
"The characteristics of the best stress survivors are adaptability,"
says Cooper. "The ability to make a decision and not worry about it, being
able to talk about their problems and having a social support network when they
need it." Someone who is able to cope with stress is also someone who can
prioritise their workload, so an individual who is a good time manager may cope
better with stress.
"People can learn to better cope with stress, but if there’s a mismatch
between the person and the job, they will have to leave. You can be trained to
prioritise, to be a better time manager, to delegate and to ask people to help
when you need it, but if fundamentally that person is dysfunctional and
mismatched, they have to get out," he says.
For Cooper, much of the blame for the current levels of stress in the
workplace comes down to poor recruitment – putting the wrong person in the
"HR departments should look at someone who is currently doing a
particular job well, and get a profile of them on which to base a psychometric
test for new recruits. They rarely do this," says Cooper.
"For example, the characteristics of the best sales person in the
company could be used as a base on which to recruit other sales staff.
Recruitment should be evidence-based. One of the biggest problems is mismatching,
and the fact the nature of jobs change and the selection procedure needs to
Peter Delves, however, who runs his own training consultancy Peter Delves
Associates, would prefer to get away from the notion that some people are more
skilled at dealing with stress than others.
"People process pressure in different ways," he says. "Some
can deal with it, but store up pressures later on."
He says that different people find different jobs stressful, but anyone with
little support and a high level of demand would be under pressure. "You
are looking to match the right person to the job, rather than whether they
would find it stressful," he says.
Delves believes that no-one with the right resources to do the job will let
pressure turn into stress.
What causes a job to be stressful?
– Too much – or too little – to do
– Boring or repetitive work
– Role confusion
– Lack of control
– Lack of communication and consultation
– Blame culture
– Lack of support for individuals to develop their skills
– Inflexible work schedules
– Poor working relationships with others
– Bullying, racial or sexual harassment
– Physical danger (such as risk of violence) and poor working
conditions (such as noise)
The UK’s 10 most stressful jobs*
The UK’s 10 least stressful jobs*
* Based on research assessing
104 jobs, by Professor Cary Cooper at the University of Manchester’s Institute
of Science and Technology, in 1997. Factors included hours worked, workload,
deadline pressures and level of responsibility.