Photo by Kai Pilger
Originally Posted On: https://www.justgreatlawyers.com/most-stressed-cities
Attorneys know a thing or two about stress, there’s no doubt. After all, whom do people call to walk them through divorce, bankruptcy, accidents, injuries, etc.? Practicing law regularly puts us ringside for witnessing (and navigating) our clients’ stress when they’re at their most vulnerable. Law is also a profession that carries its own stressors throughout, from the moment we start law school to the moment we retire as principal of a firm and just about everywhere in between.
Considering these facts, we started wondering: Is everybody as stressed out as lawyers are? Who are the most stressed-out people in America? How old are they? Where do they live? What do they do? And what stresses them out the most? Then we conducted a survey to get answers to these questions.
Some studies try to predict how stressed-out different cities and their inhabitants are based on data about unemployment rates, commute times, or home prices. Those are valid markers, of course, but we took a different approach: We just asked. Because when it comes to stress, perception can be more important than reality. The human nervous system is designed to respond to threats real or imagined, evoking the same physical and emotional consequences either way. So in essence, how stressed people think they are is exactly how stressed they really are — and we wanted to hear about that. Along the way, we found out some interesting facts and more than a few surprises.
For instance, many lawyers reflexively consider our profession to be the absolute most stressful. It can certainly feel that way, given the daily stress of acquiring clients, advertising our practices, balancing caseloads, meeting deadlines, keeping up with billing, and maintaining our professional reputations — not to mention those long, long hours of research, reading, and writing. And here’s the shocker: As it turns out, law ranks only among the Top 5 for most stressful occupations! (More on that later.)
What’s not surprising, though, is that Americans across the board are feeling more stressed than we did a year ago, in all of the major categories. But since each city in America has its own unique character, conditions, and communities, inhabitants experience varying levels of stress from a range of sources. Those factors are what we wanted to dig up and examine.
We got personal with 2,700 people in 25 major cities across the U.S. and asked them about all the things that stress them out. Here’s what we learned.
Stress in the City
Indianapolis leads the country in stressed-out living, followed by much larger Houston and Washington, D.C. If Indy’s top spot seems like a mystery, consider that the Midwestern capital also ranks among the top five for stress levels about money and political concerns.
With only the exceptions of Houston at #2 and the Seattle-Tacoma area at #7, the top ten most stressed cities are located east of the Mississippi. The two least stressed-out cities surveyed, Denver and Phoenix, are located in the less populous areas of the West and Southwest.
However, population and crowding aren’t necessarily direct causes of stress, as massive metropolises Boston, Los Angeles, and New York (not to mention Chicago, Philadelphia, and Dallas-Ft. Worth) all placed in the lower half of the rankings. So we dug into the specifics of what makes an entire city feel stressed — or not.
Oppression by Profession
According to the survey, people who work in human resources, architecture, and religious ministry are the most stressed out, with those in pet care just behind them. Attorneys and others in the legal profession round out the Top 5 for highest stress levels.
While the order may be surprising, there’s one thing all of the top-ranked professions have in common: Their practitioners, in one way or another, hold people’s (or animals’) lives in their hands. HR decisions make or break the quality of life for millions of people. An architect’s creations must be perfectly planned and constructed, or buildings come crashing down. Religious counselors work for nothing less than the integrity of people’s souls. And vet workers care for the lives of our precious pets — which, in America, might as well be people. For social creatures like us, nothing carries more weight than feeling responsible for the lives of others.
Attorneys feel this responsibility no less keenly, given that the outcomes of our cases can mean the difference between incarceration or freedom, families being kept together or torn apart, safety or danger, sometimes even literally life or death. Add to this weight the daily stressors that come with practicing law: the long hours, deadlines, billing pressures, and client demands, not to mention keeping up with constantly changing laws, evolving legal technologies, and ever-growing amounts of law school debt. Responding to a recent survey by the American Bar Association, 44% of lawyers said they wouldn’t recommend the profession to a young person because of the amount of stress involved.
On the other end of the scale, fitness professionals, real estate agents, and government workers report being the least stressed. Hospitality and service industry workers rank in the upper-middle of the pack, with educators and career military members behind them.
Worries About Working
Think being a stay-at-home parent is easy? Think again. Stay-at-home parents feel almost as much stress as regular full-time students (who themselves lag behind law students by more than half for serious stress symptoms) and significantly more than people who are employed full time. Surprisingly, the stress of owning a business runs neck-and-neck with the stress of being out of work.
Most stressed-out are the people who are unable to work due to a disability, tipping the scale at 5.63 out of 10. At the other end of the scale, retired folks only feel roughly half of that stress — and significantly less than everyone else.
Stress by the Numbers
We asked people to rate their daily stress levels on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being the lowest level of stress and 10 the highest). So who feels the most stress every day? As you might expect, feeling stressed seems to vary by age, gender, and income.
Young people feel significantly more stress than older people. Stress decreases with every decade, with levels for the oldest group ranking near half of the youngest group’s.
Women feel more stress than men. On a scale of 1-10, men’s average stress levels were at 4.1, while women’s came in almost a full point higher at 4.94.
Stress levels decrease as household income levels rise — until income reaches $250K annually, at which point stress levels start to rise again.
We asked respondents, “On a scale of 1-10, how stressed do you feel on a typical day?”
The youngest respondents said they felt the most stress, and reported stress levels diminished over subsequent decades. The 20s are the most stressful decade among those surveyed. Nationally, young adults are most likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, with 91% of high school- and college-aged respondents reporting physical or emotional symptoms of stress. Stress levels followed close behind for people in their 30s.
The 20s and 30s are commonly the life period when people either begin to establish their careers in earnest or double down on their studies in graduate school. For those seeking postgraduate degrees, stress levels shoot up — recent studies reveal that 43% of grad students and 70% of medical students experience significant stress. And it’s even worse for those who study law: A shocking 96% of law students exhibit serious symptoms of stress.
Fortunately, stress appears to decrease with age. Each decade reported stress levels roughly half a point lower than the next decade younger than them. Stress for the oldest group (at 2.59 out of 10) ranked just above half the number reported by the youngest (at 4.85). Which raises the question: Does life gets easier, or do we just get better at dealing with its curveballs as we age?
There’s clinical evidence for the “learning curve of living” theory. A 2016 study by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that mental health improves as people age. An author of the study conjectured that’s because older adults know themselves and the world better, make better social decisions, and accrue more experience at dealing with life’s hassles in general — all of which can lead to lower stress levels.
Gender and Stress
The survey found that women feel more stress than men — close to a full point higher. This corresponds with what national surveys and international studies have found: Across several demographic categories, women reported higher stress levels than men (especially as evidenced by physical and emotional symptoms like irritability, fatigue, listlessness, headache, stomach upset, and depression), plus a greater increase in anxiety in recent years.
This information will come as no surprise to female attorneys. The U.S. now has three women seated on the Supreme Court, it’s true, and now more than 1 in 3 American lawyers are female — a greater portion than ever before. But a recent study by the American Bar Association found that still, female lawyers are promoted and paid substantially less than comparably qualified male counterparts, plus they’re more likely to be interrupted while speaking and penalized for having a family. As difficult as it is for all lawyers to manage work-life balance, it’s substantially more stressful for women in law.
Sources of Strain
Money and work are the things that survey respondents feel the most stress about. Money tops the list of stressors by a sizable margin at 3.69 on a scale of 1-5, and work follows closely at 3.32, which corresponds with national trends. One recent study shows Americans’ anxiety over retirement savings increased from 37% to 41% in just one year from 2017 to 2018.
The rising cost of healthcare, in a stress category that ranked third, is also cited as a contributing factor for financial stress. Personal safety and politics rated the least stressful areas of life overall.
Money may not buy happiness, but it helps — up to a point. Generally, stress levels drop as annual household income levels rise. It makes sense that when earners have trouble covering the cost of basics like rent, utilities, food, and transportation, they feel more stress. So, not surprisingly, those at the bottom of the monetary scale report the highest levels of stress, which then decrease regularly with each step up to the next economic bracket.
But a turnaround comes in the higher income brackets. As any legal professional who has ever worked with bankruptcy knows, things get stressful when people can’t pay their bills. However, estate lawyers can attest that the wealthy have their own issues, too. When annual household income levels rise above $250K per year, stress levels rise again, signaling that too much money can bring a whole new set of worries. At these heights, the adage “More money, more problems” seems to hold true. The sweet spot seems to lie between $150K and $250K.
Breaking it Down: Stressors by Category
To get a different perspective on the stress reactions toward each of the topics cited above, we broke it down by category and looked at the responses from respondents in different cities. In five of the seven categories, Houston placed among the top three, and Washington, D.C., topped the lists. Las Vegas also placed strongly in four categories of stress.
Money & Finances
People in Las Vegas, Indianapolis, and Houston feel the most financial stress. Residents of Phoenix, Cleveland, and New York are least stressed about their finances, with Chicago and Washington, D.C., inhabitants only slightly more worried about money.
Naturally, in law-heavy cities like New York and D.C., home to a majority of the big firms, attorneys can find ample opportunities and command serious salaries. However, living expenses in these areas can offset salaries significantly. Add this to the fact that new lawyers are carrying higher student loan debt than ever before while facing lower salaries than those offered in the past, and the potential for stress is substantial.
Work & Career
People in the San Francisco Bay area feel the most career stress. The city’s job stress ranked several tenths of a point above second-place Houston and the rest of the top five. Phoenix and Atlanta residents are less worried about their careers.
Law is not the only career with unrelenting, high-pressure conditions where failure can mean disaster for the lives of clients, but the demands specific to law can definitely impose particular mental health pitfalls. These can include long-term sleep deprivation, loneliness, isolation, depression, and intense degrees of overwork leading to burnout. For those practicing law, the phenomenon of career stress is epidemic.
Health & Healthcare
Washington, D.C., residents are most stressed about health and healthcare, followed by Houston, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. New Orleans residents are least worried about their health, with Phoenix and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area just slightly more stressed than them.
Not just in areas of personal injury, many lawyers regularly do battle with insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals. Indeed, as the insurance marketplace and the American health care system become exponentially more complicated each year, many people are turning to health care attorneys to help them navigate the sticky and costly legal implications of getting or staying healthy.
Family matters are most stressful in Washington, D.C., by a sizable margin. The people next most stressed by family are Houston and Nashville. There’s less tension around the dinner table in New Orleans, Minneapolis, and Baltimore.
Lawyers have a front-row seat to the most challenging moments in many people’s lives. Even if a family isn’t dealing with divorce, custody battles, or disputed wills, Thanksgiving dinner is still more tense around some tables than others. Those who practice law regularly work with clients going through these kinds of problems — making attorneys experts not only in helping stressed-out people, but also in maneuvering our own resulting stress.
Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis are the places where romantic relationships cause the greatest stress. Matters of the heart seem to be less stressful for folks in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.
Though at least half of American marriages still end in separation or divorce, recent statistics show that the U.S. divorce rate has decreased slightly in recent years. Still, in a country with the sixth-highest divorce rate in the world, divorce lawyers will never want for work.
As might be expected, political concerns are considered the most stressful in the nation’s capital. Lawyers certainly will always be in demand in the place where our national laws are made and debated.
The next most politically stressed cities are those where political activism levels run high: San Francisco, New York, and Seattle. Charlotte and St. Louis are least stressed about politics, followed by Phoenix, Atlanta, and Baltimore.
For peace of mind about personal safety, Minneapolis seems to be the best city to live in, registering less than a 2 out of 5. Denver residents are also relatively secure about their safety, as are those in St. Louis. As you might imagine, people living in massive, crowded metropolitan areas — Washington, D.C., New York, Houston, the Bay area, and Los Angeles — are most stressed about personal safety.
Personal safety seems to be a growing national concern as demographics shift. An increase in the average age of the general population is resulting in more slip-and-fall accidents across the nation. Simultaneously, the past five years have seen a slight jump in the rate of car accidents. These factors have combined to create growth in the areas of personal injury and civil litigation.
Sex vs. Stress
Too little sex is not good for your stress level — nor, apparently, is too much. Among those surveyed, people who reported having sex only “a few times a year” landed at the top of the stress scale, while (surprise!) those who have sex “at least once a day” followed just behind. (Maybe it’s the pressure? The exhaustion?) Judging by the group who reported the lowest stress levels, it seems that intimacy about once a week is ideal.
It comes as no surprise that sex is a proven stress-releaser. Any positive physical contact, even holding hands, has been shown to lower tension levels. But there’s a cruel Catch-22 in the equation: This natural cure for stress is exactly what stress inhibits, by triggering hormonal changes that make a person less responsive to libido and sexual cues. Without the sexual release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin and endorphins into the bloodstream, stress levels rise.
Across the board, American city-dwellers are a stressed-out lot, and stress levels are increasing every year. But our survey saw some patterns emerge: Young people are more stressed-out than older people. Women feel more stress than men. And stress levels decrease as household income levels rise, to a point. Bigger, more populous cities harbor greater stress about personal safety, healthcare, and politics than smaller cities.
Attorneys deal with the nation’s stress on both professional and personal levels, experiencing it via clients as well as colleagues in the profession and also inside ourselves individually. It’s a high-stakes field that many people feel called to, and it requires immense dedication and time commitment, which can induce intense stressors over the long term.
Our survey was conducted online. It included a total of 2,718 people, with at least 100 residents in each of 25 major cities across the United States. The cities were chosen based on population, media market size, and geographic location. They were:
Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 82, with a median age of 33. They were 46% men and 54% women. In terms of relationship status:
40.9% were married.
29.8% were single.
15% were in a relationship, living together.
8% were in a relationship, living separately.
The remaining 6.3% were divorced, separated, or widowed.
The median household income was $50,001–$75,000 a year, with 31.4% of respondents earning more and 44.1% earning less.
The sample included 734 people (26.9%) who identified themselves as conservative or “lean conservative,” 760 people (27.8%) who identified themselves as moderate/independent, and 1,206 people (45.3%) who identified themselves as liberal or “lean liberal.”
The survey was based on self-reporting, which can have limitations. However, the margin of error was ±1.875% with a confidence interval of 95% based on the population of all adults in the target cities.