Do Professors Live a Stress-Free Life?

What stress do professors face in their jobs relative to other professions?

Posted Jul 12, 2013

A few months ago, Forbes magazine published a list of the least stressful jobs in 2013 (here). At the very top of the list was the college Professor. This sparked some outrage among my colleagues who (rightly) point out that a Professor's job is not without stress (here). The swell of outrage was so immense, that the original author posted an addendum stating that indeed, some of the characterizations of a Professorial job made in the original post--e.g., that Professors don't work hard--were inaccurate (here).

So, what kind of stress do Professors actually face in their jobs relative to other professions? It might help to first try to understand what is meant by the word "stress."

Immediate Physical vs. Chronic Psychological Stress
My favorite book about stress was written by Robert Sapolsky and is called Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (here). It's a required text for my course on Social Power and Status at the University of Illinois, Chambana, and it's a wonderful read--especially considering that it is basically a textbook about psychological stress.

The book begins by making a distinction between the stress faced by most non-humans (Zebras) and that faced by humans. For non-humans, stress typically means marshaling up a physiological response to impending physical threat. Think a hungry bear jumping out of the underbrush and attacking a foraging Zebra on the Savanna (ignore for a second that bears don't live on the Savanna). Stress in this example, involves the physiological response necessary to mobilize the zebra to avoid the bear attack--increased force generated by the heart, release of andrenaline, shutting down of digestive and reproductive systems, release of glucose into the blood stream. Together, this physiological response increases the physical capacity of the Zebra to avoid this current physical threat.

In the evolutionary history of the human species, we have the same physiological capacity to contend with impending physical threats. If a bear attacks us, the same type of physiological response (e.g., release of adrenaline) will occur. Our problem though, is that we marshal this same physiologically aroused state in response to psychological threats. This means that when you are worried or anxious about how others evaluate you at work, your body is marshaling a physiological response that is akin to running from an attacking bear!

This isn't necessarily a bad thing for humans in principle--sometimes we are playing basketball and so this increased physiological response helps us perform demanding tasks. However, when threats are in our head (e.g., worry about a conflict with a co-worker), the same physiological response that is used to avoid the threat can actually damage the body over time. For instance, dumping glucose into the bloodstream can increase cholesterol, high blood pressure, and risk for diabetes over time. As well, glucocorticoids, that are released during a stress response, can hinder the immune system's ability to fight disease over long periods of time.

So do Professors have the least stress at their job?
The point of the Forbes article is that in comparison to jobs where people have constant threats of injury, heavy physical labor requirements, or metabolic demands, a Professor's job is pretty cushy. That is, of course, a totally legitimate point that the article makes, and one that I agree with 100%. My job is not physically stressful in any way, shape, or form. But, what the article ignores is the uniquely human side of stress--the chronic psychological worry, anxiety, and concern that can occupy our daily thoughts. It is in this type of stress that I don't see many differences between a Professor's job and the job of any other white collar worker. Professors worry about tenure, student evaluations (just kidding), reputation, financial certainty, etc... and many of these concerns are similar to those that other people who have desk jobs worry about as well. In this way, the potential for a Professor to face stress is typical to any other sort of job requiring mental labor and teamwork.

In what ways could a Professor's job be less stressful?
Given the problems in the Forbes article regarding its failure to define stress appropriately, one might conclude that there is no reason to expect Professors to have lower stress levels than do people in other white-collar professions. I actually don't subscribe to this view either. Here's why:

One thing that I do enjoy about my job is the autonomy it affords. Sure I have deadlines like other people, but many of those deadlines are ones that I set for myself. This means that instead of having others force me to work on things that I have no interest in, I have the luxury--and it is definitely a luxury--to be able to make my own decisions about what projects to focus on. Recent research by Sherman and colleagues (2012) suggests that this autonomy is actually good for reducing psychological stress levels. In the study, individuals with leadership positions had lower self-reported anxiety and reduced levels of glucocorticoids in their saliva relative to subordinates after completing a stressful task--giving a speech in front of stoic observers. This research is some of the first evidence to suggest that having job autonomy might reduce the stress levels of people in managerial positions.

In the end, I think that both the original Forbes article, and the reactions to it have been a little misplaced. Yes, a Professor's job is free from physical injury, but it's also, at times, filled with chronic anxiety. If anything, it's not the reduced work demands of a Professor's job that make work easier, it's the autonomy and decision-making power that a Professor sometimes enjoys that help to shield against stress. How stressful is your job? Let us know in the comments!

This blog post was originally published (here) on my psychology blog Psych-Your-Mind. At PYM I have written about other topics related to faculty well-being like:

Should researchers publish papers with fewer authors?

Quantity v. Quality in publication

Sherman GD, Lee JJ, Cuddy AJ, Renshon J, Oveis C, Gross JJ, & Lerner JS (2012). Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(44), 17903-7 PMID: 23012416