Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Job stress is in the eye of the beholder

Post by Brian O'Neill on Jan. 15, 2014 at 4:22 pm with No Comments »
January 16, 2014 8:58 am

With the January doldrums well under way, many of us would love to be able to drop into one of those sun-drenched travel ads, the ones with white sand beaches and tropical drinks with little pink umbrellas, and leave all that stress behind.

Picture courtesy of firehouse.com
Picture courtesy of firehouse.com

This time of year can certainly be a grind for the worker bee, but as a recent TNT story on stressful jobs illustrates, some folks might need that break more than others.

It should come as no surprise that public safety careers made CareerCast’s top ten list of the most stressful professions. While military professionals were considered to be the most stressed out, both firefighters (3) and police officers (9) were not far behind.

But is that a fair assessment? It depends on your definition of stress.

Military personnel working in combat zones routinely find themselves in situations which trigger their “fight or flight” instincts. The body’s response to this type of stress is to release cortisol, a byproduct of the pituitary gland that provides a burst of energy by increasing blood pressure and blood sugar.

To a lesser extent than combat soldiers, firefighters and police officers also face threatening situations, such as rushing into burning buildings and clashing with violent felons. The resulting chemical boost can make the decision to head towards a threat sound almost reasonable.

While the rush can be exhilirating, years of surfing adrenalin waves can lead to such medical complications as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or insomnia. More common is the habit, picked up by many veteran cops and firefighters, of packing antacids in with your lunch.

However, if you were to ask the average first responder what produces the most stress for him or her, the answer would likely be no different than that of any worker operating within an organizational hierarchy.

In a word, management.

Over countless cups of coffee, I have listened to coworkers complain of skyrocketing stress following an unpleasant encounter with an administrator. Right or wrong, these colleagues – often individuals who would not lose a wink of sleep after a traumatic work incident – felt as if they were being stretched on the psychological rack by supervisors whose decisions or manner were (to put it lightly) questionable.

Yes, the notion of an unpleasant, even unfit boss is not confined to public safety. The corporate world is rife with managers who are incapable of interacting with their fellow humans, much less manage, supervise or (dare I say it) lead the way.

But there are a few differences between working in an office rather than behind the wheel of a fire rig or patrol car. Aside from the higher stakes, the corporate culture of most cop shops is a cross between a gladiator’s club and a lawyer’s convention (with apologies to the gladiators).

This environment is a haven for the Type A personality, the best of whom climb the promotional ladder because of their innate leadership skills. Unfortunately, there will always be a few who make the jump to command only to immediately forget what it takes to perform The Job, and so make life hell for those beneath them.

Perhaps the most important point not raised by CareerCast’s survey is the level of stress experienced by people unhappy with their career, regardless of their field. My guess is that if you’re a cubicle dweller whose only dream was to be a firefighter, then you might also be packing Rolaids to work.

Thus, with regard to stress, not all jobs are created equal. Dissatisfaction and danger are but two of the many ways stress can insinuate itself into your work life. Perhaps the best way to prevent excessive stress is to make sure the job is a good fit.

And, if you can, take a vacation now and then.

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