Published May 19, 2012
A healthy job is about more than just avoiding hazards, like dangerous material and machines.
Employees need respect, benefits, wellness incentives, and control over their work, says L. Casey Chosewood, MD, senior medical officer for the Total Worker Health program at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "What matters equally is the quality of life away from work, and how we can protect and grow that."
Every job and employer is different, but there are ways to make any job healthier. Try borrowing strategies from our list of the best, then read on for the worst.
It makes sense that careers that require exercise would be among the healthiest. Monster.com’s list of 10 healthy professions, for example, includes yoga instructor, choreographer, running coach, and personal trainer.
These jobs offer positive interactions with others, creativity, and flexibility with your schedule, says Monster.com career and finance expert, Dona DeZube. But you may not have health insurance. "Usually, unless you own a studio or are a full-time employee somewhere, you’re not going to be getting benefits," she says. "You'll have to pay for your own health insurance."
Staring at a computer all day might not seem healthy, but software engineers are doing something right. The position topped both CareerCast.com's Best Jobs list (software engineer) and CareerBliss.com's Happiest Jobs list (software quality assurance engineer was first; software engineer, 15th) for 2012.
"Those are the places people want to work, the Googles, the Intels, the more progressive companies that hold their workers accountable for the work they produce, not necessarily the hours they spend in the office," says Dr. Chosewood.
Sitting all day can have drawbacks. Some companies are experimenting with standing desks and conference rooms, and treadmill workstations.
Florists earned a spot on Monster.com's 10 healthy professions list. "Being around plants and nature has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure," says DeZube. Benefits probably extend to horticulturists, gardeners, and landscapers too, she adds.
"It can be tremendously rewarding, to make a lasting impression on your customers at important moments in their lives," says Jayne Eastwick, 54, of Eastwick's Florist in Edgewater Park, N.J.
Still, deadlines are tight and can be stressful, she says, and carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain (from standing and lugging heavy buckets) aren't uncommon.
Employer-sponsored health insurance is a key part of workplace health, so companies in the business have a leg up. Three of the 12 Well Workplace Awards given out in 2012 by the Wellness Council of America went to health insurance companies.
Actuaries, who often work as statistical analysts for insurance companies, were ranked second in CareerCast's Best Jobs 2012 list, due to its low level of stress and physical demands. The job also earned a spot on Monster.com's 2012 Best Careers for Right Now list because of its low unemployment levels—a sure boost for workers' emotional health.
Allied health professional
Several of CareerCast.com's top jobs for 2012 are in the health field: Medical records technician took first in the Least Stressful Jobs list, followed by medical laboratory technician in fifth place and dietitian in eight, while dental hygienist and occupational therapist were fourth and seventh on the overall Best Jobs list.
These people—unlike hospital doctors and nurses—often work in office environments or labs with more regular hours and predictability, says Dr. Chosewood. And because their careers focus on some aspect of health, they're more likely to implement healthy habits into their own lives.
Federal, state, and city workers often have generous benefits packages compared to those in the private sector, including holidays off and ample vacation time. And because government offices are often responsible for implementing wellness programs and initiatives, their workplaces and employees are often among the first to take advantage of them.
But government work is highly variable, particularly on the local level. Public safety and construction workers, doctors and nurses, and schoolteachers don't necessarily work in work in particularly low-stress or safe environments.
Office administrative assistants and support staff had the fewest reported injuries and illnesses in a University of Georgia 2012 study.
"There is certainly a level of control that comes with the predictability of a job that's in an office setting, where you come in and you leave at the same time every day and pretty much know what to expect every day," says Dr. Chosewood. However, overuse injuries from typing, back pain from sitting, and weight gain from an inactive lifestyle are a risk.
And these positions aren't for everyone; prone to overwork and under-appreciation, they can trigger depression.
Small business employee
A big company can have perks—benefits, advancement, resources—but may feel impersonal and uninspiring to some. For these people, small businesses may be more fulfilling.
A 2012 study found that U.S. counties with more locally-owned businesses are healthier overall—lower mortality, obesity, and diabetes rates—than those with larger companies.
"Working for a small business can be good for morale," says Dr. Chosewood. Entrepreneurial, highly energetic owners may be dedicated to their own health and the health of their employees, although it can be challenging for very small businesses to provide benefits and wellness programs, he adds.
More From Health.com:
10 Careers With High Rates of Depression
10 Ways Your Job Can Hurt Your Heart
Blue-collar or white-collar, indoors or out; creative or mundane—every profession has its health risks. Some have dangerous working conditions, while others can slowly chip away at your mental and physical health with long hours, high stress, and depressing work environments.
We rounded up a few of each type, but these jobs aren't hopeless, says Dr. Chosewood, who works to help employers of all industries and backgrounds improve their work environments. "When a company really invests in the wellbeing of its employees, almost any job can be made significantly healthier." (Visit this CDC site for more on healthy workplaces.)
Both of these professions have high rates of injuries, illnesses, and on-the-job fatalities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—but that's not the only reason they made this list. "Emergency responder jobs are very stressful," says Dr. Chosewood. "More firefighters actually die of heart attacks on the job than they do from going into burning buildings. It's the unpredictability, having to go from zero to 100 on very short notice; you have to be on high alert at all times."
Long hours, sleep deprivation, and poor eating habits at work also threaten the health of these workers.
Nine-to-fivers may not face the immediate danger of say, the police officer, but a growing body of evidence suggests that the sedentary, indoor lifestyle of office workers is still among the top threats to long-term health and wellness.
Sitting all day has been linked to back pain, repetitive stress injuries, obesity, an increased risk of heart disease, and a shorter lifespan—even among people who squeeze in exercise before or after work.
What can you do? Protect yourself by taking frequent breaks during the day and getting outside for a brisk walk and some fresh air.
Jobs working with heavy objects or machinery are risky. There were 65,040 cases of injuries and illness among laborers, stock, and material movers in 2010, a higher number than any other job.
"Some of the more traditional areas of hazardous hard labor—agriculture, fishing, mining, farming—continue to be high-risk jobs, as well, although they now make up smaller portions of the population than they used to," says Dr. Chosewood.
Other jobs high on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' injury and illness list were garbage collectors and highway maintenance workers. CareerCast.com named one occupation—lumberjack—as its Worst Job for 2012.
Lawyers have higher rates of stress and depression than the general public. A 2007 survey found only four out of 10 lawyers would recommend the career.
"I was one of the lucky ones," says Steven J. Harper, 57, adjunct professor at Northwestern University School of Law and author of the upcoming book, The Lawyer Bubble. "I enjoyed a happy and satisfying career in what has become an increasingly unhappy profession."
Lawyers bill by the hour, which promotes long days, says Harper, who also blogs. Young professionals don't have much autonomy—if they can even get a job, he adds.
Healthcare shift workers
Ironically, those who are tasked with keeping the rest of us healthy often aren't in positions to easily do the same for themselves. Shift workers—nurses and ER doctors, for example—face threats including sleep disorders, elevated stress hormones, and increased risks of diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and heart disease.
In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Nursing Administration, about 55% of nurses surveyed were obese. Those who worked long hours, and those whose jobs required less physical activity, were at greatest risk.
Service and retail employees
In terms of healthcare access and employer-sponsored benefit plans, it's the low-wage workers across several industries—especially service and retail—who are at the highest risk of being left out. "Even if insurance is offered for purchase, many of these workers can't afford it and instead opt to go without," says Dr. Chosewood.
These jobs—including cashiers, retail salespeople, and restaurant servers—can also be thankless and unrewarding, as well as physically stressful. Women in the food-service profession are more likely to be depressed than those in other careers.
This profession, named the Most Stressful Job for 2012 by CareerCast.com, involves extreme physical demands, life and death decisions, and long periods of time away from family. That puts active members of the armed services in an unhealthy position, says Dr. Chosewood, whether or not they see combat.
Bullying and psychological abuse from peers and supervisors happen more frequently in the military than in other industries.
Soldiers can also be prone to post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems; a 2012 study found suicide rates among active Army soldiers rose sharply between 2004 and 2008.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, transit and intercity bus drivers had the highest rate of injuries and illnesses of all occupations measured in 2010, and light and delivery truck drivers weren't that far behind.
Bus, truck, and taxi drivers face long hours behind the wheel, often breathing in exhaust fumes or eating unhealthy fast food.
Sleep problems and on-the-job sleepiness are common among transportation professionals (which can include pilots and train operators). And then there's the biggest threat of all: Motor-vehicle accidents are consistently the leading cause of workplace fatalities in the United States.
Healthy or unhealthy?
Not all jobs fit neatly in a category. What makes you happy also contributes to your overall health, says DeZube. "One woman's happiness is another woman's misery," says DeZube. Even red flags, like long hours and stressful environments, may be just fine for people who thrive on the energy.
"If I'm a yoga studio owner and wake up at 4 a.m. with a great idea for a new class, that's healthy," she says. "It's not healthy when you wake up at 4 a.m. thinking negative thoughts about the boss or the job."
The following jobs have the potential to be the best—or the worst—depending on the individual.
Best and Worst
More people are trading in their office jobs for the paycheck-by-uncertain-paycheck life of the self-employed.
"At my old job, there were days I literally didn't see the sun," says freelance writer Sharon Liao, 33, of Brooklyn, NY. "I had no time for exercise; I would come home make a sandwich, and collapse into bed." Now she sets her own schedule, eats healthier, and can go for a bike ride during the day.
But she's also tempted to work longer hours. "It's too easy now to check email and wind up working another hour before bed." Another challenge? Affordable health insurance. "It's complicated and expensive," she says.
Best and Worst
The higher you climb the corporate ladder, the higher your salary and benefits may go as well. But so can the hours and stress.
"We know that too many hours at work takes away hours that could be used for health-promoting activities," says Dr. Chosewood. "Often senior leaders have these very driven, Type-A personalities—something that's already associated with increased heart disease risk." Highly driven people may not keep up with health screenings or pay attention to symptoms.
Bottom line: Find the right position to suit your personality—and take care of yourself both on and off the clock—to be a productive, happier, and healthier employee.