Stress and Risk

In terms of fatal risks, the most dangerous occupations in the United States are those of loggers, fishers, pilots, roofers, garbage collectors, and ranchers. Police rank fifteenth on the list, a fact pointed out by some of my readers.

The problem with that listing, though, is that it’s a single factor listing.

Compare that list to another list, that of the most stressful jobs. According to a study by CareerCast, the most stressful jobs of 2016 are, in order: enlisted military personnel, firefighters, pilots, and police, followed by 24 other positions. Other sources add to the high stress jobs such professions as surgeons, teachers, and nurses, but almost all the various high stress job ranking lists include military personnel, firefighters, pilots, and police officers in some order at the top of the list.

One of the highest factors leading to stress for most people is uncertainty, of not knowing what to expect or when. In fact, almost any job can be high stress, especially if high expectations are placed on the worker without giving that worker either sufficient resources, time, or enough control of the situation, but what’s interesting about the “top four” high stress jobs is that all of them have high levels of uncertainty, ranging from all the time to part of the time, and that three of the four, all except pilots, almost always have to operate with insufficient resources, time, and control, while pilots have to deal with a different set of stresses, such as the responsibility of hundreds of lives in their hands, often terrible and unpredictable weather, and an unrelenting schedule.

Although all of the “top four” jobs involve uncertainty, only police and pilots face it largely unremittingly, and speaking as a former military pilot, except in combat, pilots don’t generally have to worry about the possibility that at any moment someone could be shooting at them. This knowledge can’t help but trigger anticipatory stress for police as well as for deployed military personnel.

Those who hire personnel for those jobs also recognize that fact by allowing people in those fields to retire early, a tacit and real acknowledgement of just how great a toll those occupations, with their combination of stress and risk, can take on people, not only mentally, but physically, and interestingly enough, recruiting enough qualified police and pilots is becoming more and more difficult.

4 thoughts on “Stress and Risk”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    While it doesn’t surprise me that pilots are high on a stress ranking, it does surprise me that they’re high on a risk ranking. Perhaps some fraction (combat pilots? helicopter pilots in general?) accounts for much of that.

    1. I suspect a lot of the risk comes from agricultural pilots (crop-dusting), helicopter pilots, and smaller commercial operations that range from cargo to fire-fighting. We lost two fire-fighting pilots just a few miles away two years ago. Military flying, even in peacetime, is also very high risk, so high that the casualty figures are classified.

  2. Jim S says:

    Without knowing how they collected the fatal risk data, it could also reflect the seriousness of injury likely if something does happen. While they’re not automatically fatal, plane crashes tend to have a pretty high level of injury associated with them… That might skew the numbers a bit.

  3. invah says:

    This is an excellent analytical perspective, and I’d add another axis: emotional labor.

    I mentioned on the other post that police, teachers, and librarians are de facto social workers, and social work – particularly crisis-oriented social work – requires deep reserves of emotional labor. Police, teachers, nurses, and social workers can all experience “compassion fatigue”.

    Military personnel face other emotionally-oriented pitfalls such as “moral injury”, and I suspect this applies to police officers as well though I don’t have any data/studies to support that.

    Moral injury is a factor in PTSD, and occurs when an individual acts against their own moral or belief structure:

    >In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing or harming others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death or dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations.

    See: Drescher, K. D., Foy, D. W., Kelly, C., Leshner, A., Schutz, A., & Litz, B.T. (2011). . An exploration of the viability and usefulness of the construct of moral injury in war Veterans. Traumatology, 17, 8-13. doi: 10.1177/1534765610395615

    I think factoring in physical stress/labor specifically is also important.

    Police officers in particular have to switch quickly between long sedentary periods and active, physical exertion.

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