Some jobs do you the kindness of killing you quickly. Soldiers in the military succumb to battle wounds or are blown up by land mines; pilots perish in airplane crashes; roofers fall from the roofs they’re repairing; and electrical power line installers sometimes get electrocuted. These are all fast and efficient ways to die, but what about more insidious causes of death? Stress is the number one slow killer. We experience stress daily. Chronic levels of stress can negatively impact our health over time, contributing to cardiovascular disease, ulcers, depression, colitis, and even cancer. Stress on the job can lead to burnout, a sign of declining physical and mental health. Overwhelming workloads drain us both physically and emotionally, leaving us exhausted and less interested in work. Prolonged exposure to this kind of stress at work makes burnout a likely outcome.
Exposure to toxic chemicals or disease constitutes another slow killer. The effects of exposure may not become evident for a long while, which may make people more likely to continue exposing themselves. Jobs with high levels of stress, burnout, or exposure to dangerous substances can be just as deadly as jobs which pose an immediate threat to the lives of those who perform them. Some of the jobs on this list may seem non-threatening, but they come with a price: the price of a long and healthy life.
If you thought that the only thing that could kill an accountant was boredom, then you were wrong. Handling other people’s finances can be stressful, especially when clients blame you for their tax evasion. You know what’s also stressful? Having to generate the majority of your income in a few weeks’ time, otherwise known as tax season. And let’s not forget that accountants need to be available to their clients in times of emergency, which just adds another stressor to the list. With all of these stressors, it’s no wonder that the accounting profession boasts a high rate of depression. Depression kills people oh so slowly, especially when it leads to suicidal ideation.
Attorneys are faced with many workplace stressors on a regular basis. It’s common for attorneys to have a poor work-life balance. They work long hours to meet impossible deadlines; they constantly receive e-mails, phone calls, and text messages from clients or about clients, taking them away from being present with their families. In areas where attorneys are abundant, they’re forced to compete for clients, which can be extremely stressful. Most importantly, attorneys carry the burden of holding someone else’s fate in their hands. If they don’t do their job right, then their clients risk going to jail or paying a hefty fine. It’s no surprise, then, that lawyers suffer from high rates of burnout and clinical depression. Some might not even make it to retirement.
13. Customer Service Jobs
Sure, customer service jobs have a high incidence of burnout, but what makes them a unique “slow killer” is the emotional labour required to perform these jobs well. People who work in customer service have to put a smile on in the face of dissatisfied customers; they have to pretend not to be annoyed by petty customer complaints. Surface acting can be extremely stressful on the body because the emotional reaction is of short duration and therefore not internalized. When our outer and inner emotions don’t match, our well-being suffers, and when our well-being suffers, we place ourselves at risk of dying a premature death. But at least we’ll be smiling when it happens.
12. Fast Food Worker
Fast food workers, like people who work in customer service, also serve the public; therefore, they engage in quite a bit of emotional labour themselves. They even demonstrate high rates of depression and burnout. What makes the fast food industry stand out from similar industries is the risk that its product poses to the cardiovascular health of its workers. Fast food workers typically receive a discount at the restaurant chains for which they work, which makes it tempting to consume large amounts of fast food. This increases their odds of developing cardiovascular disease. Fast food workers will feel the effects of working in the fast food industry long after they’ve left it. Atherosclerosis is a slow killer indeed.
Firefighters put their lives on the line every day, but which factors are slowly killing them? For starters, there’s smoke inhalation, which can lead to cancer, cardiovascular and lung disease if inhalation is frequent. Next, there’s exposure to toxins such as those released by flame-retardant furniture, which can lead to malignant growths, thyroid problems, neurological disorders, and diabetes over time. Lastly, there’s the dreaded burnout, a condition oddly fitting for firefighters (get it, burn-out?). The physical demands of putting out fires can tax the body beyond its ability to cope. God bless our firefighters for risking their lives to save the lives of others.
When you think of groundskeepers, you might imagine them cheerfully trimming the hedges on some extensive property, or watering the flowers in front of city hall. You probably aren’t thinking that every day on the job places them one step closer to death. Unfortunately, that might be the case if they aren’t careful. Consider the fact that groundskeepers spend their days in the sun. They may not always be adequately protected from the sun’s rays. Perhaps they didn’t have time to reapply sun screen while mowing the lawn. Yes, being out in the sun means getting a tan, but it also means potentially developing skin cancer. There’s also dehydration to worry about. Not all groundskeepers have a thoughtful housewife at the ready to provide them with a refreshing glass of lemonade.
When you make a trip to the salon to get your hair done, it likely doesn’t occur to you that your hairdresser’s life may be on the line. The hair dye you’ve requested may pose no greater danger to you than a poor beauty decision, but it may compromise your hairdresser’s health if she’s exposed to it on a daily basis. Toxic chemicals in salons resulting from the array of hair and beauty products used can contribute to asthma, neurological problems, immune diseases, and even cancer. Chemicals are absorbed through the skin and the lungs as fumes permeate the salon. Clients dissatisfied with their hair colour suddenly seem tame compared to the threat of serious illness.
Chasing after a story can be thrilling, but it can also be stressful. These days, journalists are an endangered species, and consequently must fight to survive. They’re assigned increasing workloads as media outlets cut staff, they’re required to meet constant deadlines, and they engage in fierce competition for stories. There are also personal and legal ramifications to the stories that journalists publish. These stories affect real people’s lives, and have real impacts on organizations and policies. The stressors inherent in journalism contribute to burnout, especially when job demands prevent journalists from engaging in self-care regimens. Journalists who cover traumatic events have the added risk of developing PTSD. Talk about a story to die for.
You would think that people working in a healthcare profession such as nursing wouldn’t be in danger of seeing their health suffer, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. In 2010, nurses had a rate of absence due to illness or disability nearly twice as high as any other occupation. Nurses are vulnerable to needlestick and sharps injuries, and are often the victims of patient assault. In fact, nurses are more likely to be assaulted on the job than are police officers or prison guards! Unsafe work practices expose nurses to disease, while dangerous levels of workload and inadequate rest place them at risk for burnout. Get that nurse a doctor, stat!
Looks like that doctor isn’t going to be of much help to nurses, after all. In 2015, 46% of physicians in the United States reported that they had experienced burnout. Suicide rates among physicians are higher than those reported by the general population. Research has hinted at a connection between burnout and suicidal ideation, which is even more troubling. What might be contributing to these dire outcomes? First, physicians work long hours, sometimes overnight depending on what their specialty is. Second, physicians are increasingly being held responsible for bureaucratic tasks, which takes them away from patient care. Third, physicians are responsible for the lives of their patients, and patient deaths can hit them hard. We also shouldn’t forget about their exposure to disease. Ask yourself: is a physician’s salary worth your life?
5. Police Officer
On the job, police officers are exposed to things that can kill them very quickly: gunshot wounds, knife wounds, spectacular crashes following a car chase. But they’re also exposed to slow killers. Police officers experience a special danger to their health as a result of the constant activation of their fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response kicks into gear whenever we experience a threat to our safety; it puts the body in a state of stress to facilitate fighting or fleeing. Police officers regularly put themselves in positions that threaten their safety. Frequent exposure to such high levels of stress as generated by the fight-or-flight response can lead to a host of negative health conditions, most of them showing their effects later in life. We’re lucky that police officers don’t run from doing their jobs.
Salespeople are another occupational group vulnerable to depression. They work in a high-stress environment, working long hours, feeling pressured to meet sales quotas, and relying on uncertain commissions. Sales jobs are also rife with role ambiguity, or uncertainty surrounding what your role is at work and how to perform it. “To do” or “not to do” are questions often asked by salespeople. Sales jobs likewise create the opportunity for role conflict, or the incompatibility between two roles. For example, a salesperson might have to stay late at work to meet a sales quota, which is incompatible with making it home in time to have dinner with the family. Role ambiguity plus role conflict equals a recipe for burnout, and burnout is not desired if you hope to make it to old age.
3. School Principal
School principals are in desperate need of a time-out. Australian principals exhibited stress symptoms and a burnout rate that was almost twice the norm in 2016. Workplace demands are overwhelming, with principals complaining of too much administrative work and not enough time to focus on their leadership role. They also have to manage the conflicting goals of teachers and school boards. To please one, principals inevitably upset the other. Then there’s the issue of asbestos. Traces of asbestos can be found in schools across Canada; accidental exposure can cause cancer and other adverse health conditions. I know of several teachers who briefly transitioned into principal jobs only to return to teaching a few years later. Teaching is far from the ideal job, as you’ll soon read, but at least teachers are in control of their own classrooms. Principals, it seems, are rarely in control of anything, including their health.
2. Social Worker
It turns out that helping other people with their problems can take a toll on your health. Social workers are vulnerable to a number of adverse health conditions. First, the demands placed on social workers coupled with the stress of dealing with troubled families leads to high rates of burnout in the profession. High suicide rates have also been recorded among social workers. Then there’s the compassion fatigue; social workers can become numb to appeals for help after empathizing with clients day in and day out without relief, evidence that their emotion regulation system has become disregulated. Social workers are particularly vulnerable to Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) by virtue of their work, a condition whereby social workers experience a negative emotional reaction to their clients’ traumas. After several years on the job, social workers might need a life-saving intervention of their own.
I’ve saved the slowest killing job for last. People think it’s easy to be a teacher. Your lessons are provided to you in an instruction manual, you get summers off… Let me put it this way: without those summers, teachers might not make it through the school year without going on a burnout leave. Teachers are treated like glorified babysitters these days. They’ve become psychologists, social workers, and parents to their students. Teachers, especially elementary school ones, rarely have the luxury of an established curriculum. Instead, they have to create their own work, which leads to hours of overtime without pay. Teachers are also subject to bullying from parents, and aren’t always supported by their administrators. Consequently, more and more teachers are leaving the profession within their first five years on the job. If it’s not burnout killing teachers, then it’s the asbestos. If you’re thinking of becoming a teacher, take my mother’s advice: run.
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