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An inside look at high stress careers

By Tara Fortune
Artwork by Carolyn de Lang

   When two of his co-workers fell from a burning building into the flames, the whole team had only minutes to search the inferno to find them.


   Mike Wood, a Toronto fire captain with 20 years of experience, knows firsthand that being a firefighter is not an easy job and comes with a lot of stress.


   Job strain and job related stress are two categories of stress according to Dr. Ash Bender, a Toronto psychiatrist that specializes in workplace mental health at CAMH and The Scarborough Hospital.  Not every job will have the same level of stress. Everyone is different and everyone handles situations differently.


  “People are more likely to report poor mental health if experiencing high stress. They’re actually twice as likely to develop clinical disorders like a major depressive disorder,” Bender said. Scientists at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China conducted a study that said the most stressful job is waitressing. Waitressing is linked to high stress and low wages that can cause heart disease and strokes.

   The study claims that feeling in control and respected is a big factor in workplace stress.

"There’s the demand-control-support theory that looks at someone in a high demand position with low control and low support. They’re going to report the experience of high stress,” Bender said.


   Jen Farr, a waitress at Beer Bistro on King St. East in Toronto, shares why she believes waitressing is stressful.

“Your number one priority is making sure the customers are satisfied and happy, which means pleasing everybody. You unfortunately come last.”


   Hearing stories from Wood about jumping into fires may lead one to think, why was a waitress rated one of the highest stress jobs? Different studies online have different rankings of the most stressful jobs. On the website,, firefighter is given a stress rating of 71 per cent. Wood shares why his job can be stressful.

   “The responsibility that we hold for the safety and protection of our crew, not only from a moral standpoint but from a legal standpoint, does create some stress,” Wood said.


   Wood also mentioned that because firefighting is shift work it makes it more stressful. He said that many firefighters are expected to work Christmas and New Years and even though it sounds “minute in some point, they do create some stress because you do miss a lot of really great moments.”








   Both Wood and Farr said they have experienced a situation in their workplace where a co-worker was not able to handle the pressure. When asked if work caused any social or mental barriers for them, Wood and Farr were surprised to discover that their workplaces did, in fact, create certain barriers, some that aren’t always visible. Farr said after long shifts of dealing with customers she craves some alone time.  


   Farr said that managers can have an impact on encouraging a positive workspace. She believes a lot has to do with the manager looking at every level of the industry as an equal.

“It doesn’t matter what your title is or what your position is, everybody should work as a team and look at the picture as a whole,” Farr said. “I feel like positive feedback and encouragement during and after a shift can make a big difference in stress levels.”


   Bender used the effort-reward model as an example of how bosses can improve mental health. The model was developed by Johannes Siegrist, a medical sociologist and professor.  

“The effort-reward model which is high effort and low reward, will experience strain. If you’re asking a lot from employees, you have to pay them properly but you also have to show recognition, appreciation, support, and all those kinds of things,” Bender said. 


   Wood said that Toronto Fire Services has made progress in the way it helps its employees. He said there has been a lot of education on mental health and implies that the stigma is being lifted.

“If someone at work is feeling that they need to share or talk about something, we are all encouraged as crew members to listen. But, ultimately, if we need to use a phone number we can call and we are given immediate access to services,” Wood said.


   “Increasingly the expectation for employees is that the employer should be providing resources. Being aware of job strain and stress exposure that are deleterious to our health, they should have resources available because they ought to know better,” Bender said.

I feel like positive feedback and encouragement during and after a shift can make a big difference in stress levels.”
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