By Mark Richards

One in four of us will suffer from mental health problems in any given year – and for many of us, that means stress. Long-term stress can have serious health consequences – but what exactly is stress? What are the most stressful jobs in the UK? And how do you beat it?

When I was younger – much younger – and not the caring, sensitive soul that I am now, I had a friend called Chris. He worked as a lifeguard: on the beach through the summer, at the local swimming pool through the winter. I bumped into him one day in town. “How are you doing?” I said.

“Not good,” Chris replied. “I’m off work with stress.”

I made sympathetic noises and then went away and mocked him. “Stress!” I said to anyone who would listen. “Stress? How can you get stress from looking at girls in swimsuits all day?”

As I say, I was much younger. At the time I did not know about irregular working patterns, unreasonable expectations from bosses – and the simple fact that some people have a much higher tolerance for stress than others.

What is stress?

There has just been a survey published listing the least and most stressful jobs you can do. But let us take a step back first: what exactly is stress? And why is it so dangerous?

We have all heard someone say, “I’m stressed.” There have been times in all our lives when we have felt stressed at work, at home or in our relationships. We have all known the feeling of having so much to do that we do not know where to start: of feeling that events are controlling us, rather than the other way round.

And while there is no specific medical definition of stress – with health care professionals often disagreeing over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them – that for me is the best working definition of stress.

It is a feeling that you cannot cope, that you cannot meet the demands placed upon you, that you simply have too much to do and cannot see any way to solve your problems. As the mental health charity Mind put it on their website, “Sometimes you can’t see beyond the thick fog of stress.”

How does the body respond to stress?

Time to get technical! When your body detects stress it responds by producing hormones that include adrenaline and cortisol: these are the hormones that help you deal with any threats or pressure you are facing – commonly named the ‘flight or fight’ response.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure and provides extra energy: cortisol triggers the release of glucose into your bloodstream giving you extra energy – getting you ready to run away or fight back. Meanwhile, other bodily functions that are not immediately needed – digestion, for example – are suppressed.

All that is fine if you are walking through the woods and bump into a bear. Adrenaline and cortisol are exactly what you need. They could be exactly what you do not need if you are sitting at your desk all day. While a lack of stress means your body can be under-stimulated, too much stress – especially over a prolonged period – can cause a range of physical problems including headaches, stomach upsets and high blood pressure. Long-term stress can significantly increase the risk of strokes and heart attacks – leading to it being dubbed ‘the silent killer.’

What are the most stressful jobs in the UK?

A recent report by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on work-related stress, depression and anxiety listed the most stressful jobs in the UK, with nursing and midwifery, teaching and welfare making up the top three. Interestingly, these are professions dominated by women – so it was no surprise that the report showed women 61% more likely than men to suffer from work-related stress, with 1,880 cases per 100,000 workers.

As we have written above, so much work-related stress comes from a feeling of being under pressure, unable to cope and unable to deliver. Anyone who has watched the news lately will know that those three professions tick exactly those boxes.

Making up the ‘top five’ were legal and professional jobs, plus admin and business support. Reasons cited for stress included workload, tight deadlines, pressure and responsibility and lack of support from senior management.

What are the most stressful jobs in the UK?

What are the least stressful jobs?

So where should you work if you want to avoid stress? Bizarrely with the most stressful job (nursing/midwifery) being in the NHS, so is the least stressful job. Several surveys award the title to medical sonographer, the people who perform ultrasound scans and have the pleasure of saying, “And look there, you can see his head. Or her head. And there’s a hand…”

Other entrants on the ‘good news’ list included university professors, hair-stylist, jeweller, dietician and – to no-one’s surprise at all – librarian.

What might not be expected is that the self-employed also reported lower stress levels and a much better work-life balance than the national average. That may surprise you: self-employed people work long hours, have to balance the needs of their customers and their cash-flow and frequently say that they are “always at work.” But it brings us back to the earlier comment – self-employed people are at least in control of their own destiny, and they do not have ‘senior management’ to worry about.

It is also the case that some people can cope with higher levels of stress than others. Self-employed people may simply be more resilient to stress in the first place. Let us face it: if you are prone to worrying you are unlikely to give up the security of the corporate world for the insecurity of self-employment. Some people simply have to work for themselves: but it is not for everyone, and I would suggest that those people who do start their own business have a higher tolerance for stress. They may even ‘need’ stress – and the adrenaline it brings – to live a ‘normal’ life which is in stark contrast to those other most stressful jobs.

But it is not just work that causes stress

Work may be the major cause of stress for many of us, but we can also be badly affected by events outside the workplace. As far back as 1967 psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of 5,000 patients to see if stressful life events might cause illnesses. They came up with the Holmes-Rahe stress scale, which gives 43 life-events a score from zero to 100. So, for example, the death of your spouse scores 100, divorce 73 and being sent to prison 63. At the bottom end of the scale, a minor law violation scores 11 and going on holiday gets a 12. Astonishingly, I cannot find ‘having a teenage daughter’ anywhere on the list…

It is going to be a difficult year

Whether it is problems at work or at home, we are all going to suffer from stress at some point in our lives. 2018 does not promise to be an easy year, with wages looking set to continue lagging behind inflation. If you are feeling stressed, do not ignore it: as we have seen above, long-term stress can have serious health consequences. Get some exercise, get out in the fresh air, find someone to talk to, have some ‘me time’ and – above all – be proactive and try and control events. We all owe that to ourselves and our families.