Five steps to a stress-free working life

If you're suffering from high stress at work, try switching to a job that's more in tune with your needs.

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Put your ear to the ground nowadays and you hear a steady rumble of 'stress-stress-stress-stress', like a herd of bison in the distance. Whether it's a consequence of recessionary cost-cutting and downsizing or the ever more cut-throat pace of change in the global marketplace, huge chunks of the workforce seem to be stressed out by their jobs - and it's getting worse. The reasons cited are legion: jobs are no longer secure, pensions are meagre, staff are micromanaged and over-controlled, roles have been de-skilled to the point where they'd bore robots, you are routinely abused by ungrateful, ill-informed customers, the hours are long, and meaningful support is almost non-existent.

Stress is nothing new, of course, and moaning is unlikely to improve either your state of mind or your career prospects. But nor will simply ignoring it. 'In sectors as diverse as teaching and finance,' says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational management at Lancaster University, 'work has become much more stressful.'

What has changed? In the past, he says, 'senior managers tended not to suffer from stress because they had a lot of control and a lot of security. Now both have gone.'

Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler magazine, takes a similar line. 'The kind of cushy numbers you had in the 1960s and '70s don't really exist any more. In living memory, you had jobs like the gentleman stockbroker or banker, but now virtually everything in the private sector is pretty hellish.'

But what if you're one of those for whom the recessionary doom and gloom has taken its toll on nerves and motivation levels, and you fancy shifting gear to a less psychologically punishing lifestyle? Are there any low-stress jobs left? Well, yes. Vocations are diverse; fitness trainers, gardeners and massage therapists all widely report low stress levels. But there's a big catch. You pay for improved mental serenity with a whopping decrease in salary. These are not, typically, well-paid roles.

The problem for those who would seek an easier life is that big-money jobs generally come with a big chunk of hassle attached. Unless you can afford to downshift radically, you risk trading work worries for financial worries and merely swapping one kind of stress for another.

The truth is that to stand a realistic chance of enjoying both peace of mind and a decent standard of living, you must eschew the holy grail of an entirely low-stress working life and draw up your own personal stress-reduction programme instead. Then go for a job with as many of your individual aggro-reducing characteristics as you can find.

Another reason that this may be a better approach is that one person's stress-free life is another's vexatious vocation. For those who spend their days chained to a computer screen, being a carpenter might seem an agreeable existence. But it probably won't be if you enjoy constant interaction with other people or your natural inclination is towards complex problem-solving. And it probably isn't low-stress if you also 'need' to earn enough to put the kids through private school and go skiing twice a year.

Finally, before you take the plunge and go for the de-stressing option, it's worth considering whether you need a change of perspective rather than a change of job. Is work really such a pressure-cooker?

Sarah Sweetman, a business psychologist at the consultancy Organizational Edge, isn't so sure. 'Most people would say that the workplace is more stressful than it was 20 years ago,' she says, 'but we should ask whether it is actually job stress or something else more complex.' It could simply be that we talk more about it than we did. 'Stress is very much a part of the language and the higher the awareness is, the more you're likely to see it reported. You have a kind of temporal arrogance at work too - people assign greater importance to the time that they happen to be living in.'

But for those still determined to go through with it, MT identifies five things you should look for if you really want a lower-stress job ...

Stability and security

The job-for-life may be no more, but there are still less volatile positions out there. Job security depends on high barriers to entry and low replicability - so that there will always be a limited number of people who can do the job and it isn't too likely to get outsourced to Bangalore, Cairo or Manila. The obvious choices are those bastions of the old middle class - accountancy, law and medicine.

For those who want to look outside the professions, roles that require highly specialised knowledge - especially technical knowledge and qualifications - tend to be good bets too (engineers and actuaries, for instance), and working in an obscure sector is great for keeping the competition down: some of the more out-of-the-way niches in IT, industry and food technology, for example. You may get the odd blank stare at dinner parties, but holding down a job no-one has ever heard of can do wonders for your peace of mind.

The right kind of personal contact

Most of us enjoy spending time interacting with others - humans are social creatures, after all. And forging strong relationships with customers and colleagues at work can be a great stress-reliever, too.

But there's interaction and interaction. The first involves mutual respect and co-operation - such as that enjoyed by a medical sales rep dealing with doctors, or by a career coach or a financial adviser dealing with clients. The second is where you are on the receiving end of spittle-flecked tirades from angry individuals who you can't really do much to help - the grisly world of 'the customer care department' typified by some utilities, telecoms and insurance companies.

Life can be grim caught on the front line between over-empowered consumers (who have paid a fiver and expect a £5,000 service) and weaselly organisations that regard customer service as a cost rather than a benefit. Especially as such staff are often incapable of solving callers' problems because the system is designed to maximise their work rates rather than actually help customers.

Such roles should be avoided at all costs by those in search of quiet fulfilment and the knowledge of a job well done: witness the rising number of Indian call centre staff who quit because they can't take the customer abuse.

The right kind of boss

This could be the biggest single factor in how stressed you feel, and the one most amenable to improvement. Indeed, if every UK boss agreed to stop meddling and let their people get on with the job, we'd be happy to bet that the world of work would be a more chilled and productive place inside a week.

Good bosses can do far more than just empower staff, though; they can manage through a culture of praise and encouragement, they can discourage presenteeism and long hours, and they can promote a healthy work/life balance - all of which are likely to reduce stress and raise output. But too often, this admirable common sense counts for nothing when ranged against the pressures that bosses themselves are under to demonstrate performance; and plenty of less than helpful or misinterpreted management thinking can be used to reinforce a command-and-control mentality. If you have a good boss, you're lucky and should think hard before leaving - unless he or she does.

If not - take a job that gets you out of the office a lot (sales rep, buyer) or one that allows flexible working; these jobs are not without their own kinds of stress, but tend to be less troubled by micromanaging bosses.

The only way to avoid bosses completely is to set up on your own. 'Self-employed people don't have to deal with a lot of the normal organisational clutter,' says the Work Foundation's Stephen Overell.

Positive readings in change, pressure and perception

How you react to change depends largely on control. If you work in a firm that is changing fast because it's leading the way in its sector, you probably feel positive about it. But if change is happening because your employer is trying to catch up with its rivals, you may be more jaundiced. 'A job where you have a lot of external change imposed on you tends to be higher in stress,' says Cooper. 'This is one reason why jobs such as teaching have become very stressful.' So look for employers that are on the upslope of the bell curve.

Then there's pressure. 'Most people need some pressure,' says Sweetman at Organizational Edge, 'It's part of the human condition. Without it, we don't progress.' So pressure that results in achievement or reward - even if we have to work long and hard for it - is generally good. But pressure that requires an endless slog to no readily apparent end is bad.

Finally, there is public perception - we like it when other people view what we do for a living as important or socially useful. So banking is probably not a great option just now.

Potential for fulfilment

Fulfilment tends to mean that a job has something creative or engaging about it that provides a sense of worth or intellectual satisfaction. Advertising is a classic example - it can be stressful but in a positive way, because ad people enjoy what they do. Many jobs in the geekosphere fit this profile too - software development, RnD, and roles in academic science, such as physicist, chemist and astronomer. People do them because they are exceptionally good at them, and even if the work is hard and long, they get a big intellectual kick from the results.

But you don't need a planet-sized brain to get fulfilment, says Overell. 'Hairdressers tend to experience very high job satisfaction - it's creative, especially at the higher end; you identify with the craftsmanship; and it's an emotional transaction.' Snip snip.

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