Are there accessible careers that aren't stressful and that pay well?
December 18, 2022 10:26 AM   Subscribe

A while ago, I was in a Reddit thread where someone said, basically, "I want this job, but it sometimes requires a really hard skill. That sounds stressful. I just want a career where I don't need to worry about it." I often remember it because it puzzled me a little. Are there careers like that currently? Have there ever been jobs that pay you enough to live comfortably, that are easy enough to obtain without difficult training or nepotism, and that don't cause stress?

I legitimately can't think of any. Maybe I'm just being a cranky person and saying, "Toughen up, buttercup! Real life is hard!" I feel like most jobs that aren't stressful while you're working them require a lot of skill-building beforehand, and that process in itself is stressful. But on the other hand, I think we ALL would want stress-free jobs that pay well and that don't have great barriers to entry. Jobs like that should exist. I just don't think they do.

For context:
I'm a stenographic court reporter. It's really hard to build the skill necessary for this job, but once you're there, it's a fantastic job. There are some alternatives on the market that tend to pay less, require more work on the back end, and don't require machine steno or voice steno. This weekend, I remembered a post in r/courtreporters where someone asked about a career recording proceedings + transcribing them later. They wanted to develop a career in a field that valued the skills required by the job, and they wanted a job with minimal stress. Learning steno seemed stressful to them. My first thought was that stress-free jobs don't exist, whether the stress occurs while you learn how to do the job or while you do the job.
posted by elzpwetd to Work & Money (26 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
In my many years as a government contractor I observed quite a few Federal employees 'working' at jobs like this. The stressful part is getting in, which requires a degree (usually) and the patience to complete the application process (much facilitated these days by an insider who's gone through it recently). Helpful if you're willing to do an unglamorous job, like accounting, software maintenance, or HR. If you can do that for a few years and transfer/get promoted into a staff position, you're golden. A warning, however: these types of jobs are often soul-killing -‌- bad for your health, bad for your psyche.
posted by Rash at 10:53 AM on December 18, 2022 [10 favorites]

I really think it depends on what your definition of stress is. I worked in a big bureaucracy for a long time, and loved many aspects of the job, but some of the parts that should have been the least stressful (eg paperwork etc) were very difficult due to the need to deal with the frustration of outdated systems, co-workers who wanted only to minimize their own workload, etc.. The parts that probably would have been ranked as more stressful according to any objective scale, such as traveling to difficult and dangerous areas and meeting with difficult and dangerous people in order to achieve high-stakes outcomes were actually easier for me, since I had more autonomy and the work seemed more meaningful.

Now I run a non-profit and my typical day falls somewhere in between those two things, but objectively, I probably have more stress because I have more responsibility. At the same time, I find it easier because this stress is what I would describe as "clean," ie it's about whether I have the resources and capacity to do what needs to be done, rather than whether or not I will be blocked/thwarted by something in the system. In military language, my problems are about "enemy" or "terrain," rather than "ally."

Depending on where a person falls in all this, they might be able to minimize their work stress, but probably not eliminate it. There will be trade-offs, for sure.
posted by rpfields at 11:18 AM on December 18, 2022 [8 favorites]

Have you considered the trades - builder, electrician, plumber, mechanic, and so on?

Your criteria are not hard lines (is this 'too much' training, not a career or not sufficiently comfortable) so I think any judgement is going to be a bit subjective.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 11:19 AM on December 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

You are right that you rarely get something for nothing. But there is also recognising that we’re all different and find different things stressful/rewarding and that people have different views as to what constitutes enough money to live on comfortably. So one person’s ok job is another person’s living hell. Clearly there are some things that would stress most ppl but there is a lot of variation, too.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:21 AM on December 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have a job in HR. Mine is operational, not social. Are people getting paid. Do people have healthcare. Is the paperwork straight. Are the tools we use for people management set up and working properly. This time of year is particularly bad because I've got to pay a lot of attention to taxes and W-2s, but for the most part it's fine. I'm also a people manager. My days are very full and I've got a lot of important responsibilities, but since I do my job competently I can close my computer at 5 and live the rest of my life.

I've got really good nonspecific technical skills, probably only slightly higher than typical for an elder millennial, those are crucial. I've got very good social skills, those are crucial. I've got extremely good reading and writing skills, those I'd say are moderately useful. I went to an elite university, they don't provide degrees in useful job skills there.

Pays well is relative, but I'm comfortable. I live alone and am a homeowner in a major US city and can afford all the heat and food I want. I can't afford a bunch of travel or children on my income alone, but those things aren't interesting to me.

I think a LOT of jobs are like mine--things you don't need any particular training or skills for, and that you can pick up/get along in fine if you learn how to google your own tech support. The most important thing is having enough social skills that people like you.
posted by phunniemee at 11:29 AM on December 18, 2022 [17 favorites]

Best answer: I guess it depends on what you mean by accessible. If you’re willing to work pretty crappy, low-paying jobs for a couple years, you can generally parlay that experience into a fairly decent career. I’ve often cited my own experience working in a call center for an insurance company as how I got my career in insurance IT. I love my job - I’m a business analyst who mostly specs out new features for existing software and the testing it. Easy hours, no stress, but pretty remunerative and intellectually stimulating.

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re outgoing, it’s pretty easy to find a sales job with a good pay-to-effort ratio. Because it’s so easily measured, sales is a pretty easy career path to move up in. The downside, aside from personality fit, is that a lot of entry-level jobs are commission-based, so you have to be able to go a while without guaranteed income. Or sell crap - I know a shocking amount of people who started their careers selling cable door to door. But again, if you’re good at it, you’ll be able to move up quickly. And if you’re really good at it, it’s pretty easy to get noticed by and promoted to executive positions.

I think most “office jobs” are a pretty good balance. HR is pretty accessible, although the company will determine stress more than the position. I recently embedded with our claims department, and claims adjusting seemed pretty low-stress. At the very least, my company’s claims adjusters were all pretty easygoing, fun, and happy. I think banks used to be a nice career path (see “bankers’ hours”), but financialization seems to have ruined that.

As I mentioned about HR, I think the company you work for will determine stress levels more than the position. I’ve worked in similar positions to my current one at actual software companies, and it was a lot more stressful even though the work was similar. Just like people, some companies seem to thrive on drama, while others are calmer.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:29 AM on December 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Broadly, I think you may benefit from a better understanding of what is an occupation vs what is a profession.
posted by phunniemee at 11:30 AM on December 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A couple of observations that may or may not be helpful:

First, as others have said, I think that, while there is overlap, different people are stressed out by different things. So there is no universal definition for what a non-stressful job looks like, and it's probably useful to spend some time thinking about what your personal stressors are to help narrow down the options.

Second, I think that most fields have a pretty broad range of payscales and working environments. Yes, high-paid/low-stress might be the least common combination, but it does often exist if you look for it. Don't think of careers as a single entity where the stress and pay are the same for all practitioners.

Most of the people I've seen in high-paid, low-stress (by their definition) jobs fall into two categories. The first category is people who have careers that are relatively* low-stress and typically low-paid, but they are in highly-paid companies. An example I know personally are some people who are educators/trainers inside of tech companies, where they get tech industry salaries and equity, and probably a less-stressful version of the job than they would have in a more typical environment. The second category is people who have jobs that are typically high-paid, but they found a less-stressful place to do it. E.g. moving from a stressful law firm to in-house counsel at a company that isn't as demanding. They might not make as much as they did before, but they still make a lot, and have much better work/life balances.

So I think it's worth considering all of the different places where you could use a given skillset, and figuring out if there are some that pay more and/or are less stressful than the others. Those places are out there.

* Yes, I know that ALL OF THESE can be extremely stressful and I'm not trying to minimize that. Just saying that in my observation of friends and family, these are examples of things I personally have seen people be able to do without being very stressed. And again, some of it comes down to what personally stresses you out. Don't come at me!
posted by primethyme at 11:34 AM on December 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: @How much is that Froggie in the window: I think you may have misread my question. But anyway, yeah, I have considered those because machine stenography is considered a trade skill. I learned it. I'd assume other trade skills take effort to learn as well and therefore have some stress associated with building the skill.
posted by elzpwetd at 11:35 AM on December 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @phunniemee: I think I would better be able to help people who approach my professional community with questions like these if you shared what you consider the difference between an occupation and a profession. Care to share?
posted by elzpwetd at 11:36 AM on December 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Well, there are jobs that fit these criteria because they're undesirable along some other axis. For instance, those where you have to live in an extremely remote or undesirable place, jobs where you spend extended periods away from home, night-shift jobs, etc.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:40 AM on December 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: About 25 years ago I got an easy, low-stress job through a temp agency and the company I was working for liked me so much they offered me a permanent job that was a little more complex but also fairly easy, moderately interesting and low stress. I wasn't making a boatload of money, but it was more than I had made as a wildlife biologist and it felt like enough. I had a college degree, but there were people in my department who hadn't gone to college. At the time I started working there I was in a 9-month certificate program at a community college, learning client-server programming, and I ended up using my programming skills to develop some programs for my department, but there were other parts of my job that didn't require any special skills and other people working with me who didn't have any special skills.

Based on the fact that I took a random temp job (the first one offered to me) that easily turned into a perfectly good permanent job doing something I had no previous knowledge of at a small company I had never heard of, I have assumed ever since that the world is full of businesses doing a wide variety of things most of us know nothing about and offering a wide variety of jobs that don't require special skills or training and that often lead to higher paying jobs within the same company. I tend to imagine that you could get any random job at any random company and have a fairly good chance of turning it into a career by doing it well, taking every opportunity to expand your skills, and gradually moving into better and better jobs. This may or may not be true.

Some of those jobs may require a college degree - not because you need any particular knowledge, but just because employers like people with college degrees. I don't know if you consider getting a bachelor's degree "difficult training," but it doesn't seem difficult to me unless you go to a really demanding college. The programming certificate program I was in only took 9 months and did not seem particularly difficult to me. Something like that obviously can lead to a lot of job opportunities. Some programming jobs are high stress but some aren't. Not all programmers are working on important, high profile projects with tons of overtime. The programming I did as part of my job was fun and not at all stressful.
posted by Redstart at 11:56 AM on December 18, 2022 [11 favorites]

What’s your definition of living comfortably? Jobs I’ve had or friends have had that have been pretty low stress but pay around $35k a year: receptionist, payroll at a small company, proofreader, healthcare admin. None of these required any prior training (proofreader did prefer a bachelor’s degree but you could get in without it) and skills were pretty easy to pick up on the job. Job itself was only stressful when you had bad coworkers or managers but that’s true for any job and I think fits the criteria of the career itself not being stressful. For me, $35k for one person in the Midwest is extremely livable. Two people living together and making $70k total is quite comfortable. Kids would change the equation, though.
posted by brook horse at 12:03 PM on December 18, 2022

Response by poster: Thank you for your answers, everyone. I can’t tell you how often I encounter people who think that all they can do is type and fall into a not-so-lucrative and often parasitic transcription job. You the best!
posted by elzpwetd at 12:26 PM on December 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Have there ever been jobs that pay you enough to live comfortably, that are easy enough to obtain without difficult training or nepotism, and that don't cause stress?

I don't like to do back and forth, but I was unclear how I misread your question. I broke this into its three component parts:

- is it enough to live comfortably
- is training accessible and low stress
- is the work itself of low stress

Either way, I can pad out my answer a bit.

I have family who are mechanics, which is why I was thinking of trades. I guess what I'm talking about might not be applicable to every trade.

From what I can tell, they actively enjoyed being trained, and there wasn't much stress in it for them, which, to be fair, probably came about because they were doing something they wanted to do and already had a degree of grounding in it, having tinkered a bit already.

Bear in mind that (at least in those days) this was more of an apprenticeship, so you were fixing people's cars from day one, albeit supervised and with occasional classes. I think that mitigates a lot of the stress involved in learning and it avoids the delay in starting in on the real work (versus, say, getting your accounting degree by studying and passing stressful exams). So less stress, more gratification.

That's why was thinking that this might fit your criteria.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 12:35 PM on December 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There are lots of jobs with a livable wage that just require you to know how to type, though. Actually, there are a lot of jobs that involve a bunch of computer work that you can get without even knowing how to type or open a browser window. Ask me how many people I've had to train who didn't have these skills for jobs that were about 50% on the computer.

Many administrative jobs are just about transferring data from one medium to the other. Lots of small companies have people who are garbage at using computers, so you can have very basic computer literacy skills and do well in those jobs. Low stress, not high pay but enough to live on. Everyone in a high-stress, high-pay job has someone below them handling the paperwork and scheduling and checking the fiddly boxes. It's pretty low-stress but those jobs don't tend to be advertised well because they usually hire from temp agencies or are in small companies that don't know how to do hiring very effectively. But there's plenty of them around.
posted by brook horse at 12:43 PM on December 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a friend who does not have a college degree or any specific technical skills who has a job that pays in the $55 - $65k range in a major metro area in the U.S. working remotely. It's low stress and has ok benefits, but is dull. He works for some sort of medical billing company running reports on different types of bills and and insurance reimbursements. He learned SQL on the job and I think that's the main thing he does - uses SQL to run reports on medical billing and insurance claims. When he started he made less, but without a ton of effort he has risen in the ranks over a few years.
posted by forkisbetter at 1:01 PM on December 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you are a people-y person, then I think internal communications can be this. It pays comfortably well but probably not 6 figures. There's a wide variety of work, and how un-stressful the job is depends a lot on how functional the organisation is. So, in a decent organisation it's good. There are fairly low barriers to entry, usually you need to be fairly good at writing and it suits a creative thinker, or just someone with enthusiasm and common sense. Many people learn on the job a bit.

If you can are comfortable with spreadsheets and similar things, there are lots of data-y jobs you can do that are not too stressful, not super difficult and pay a lower middle class salary. Even in a slightly crappy organisation you can often be well protected from dysfunction.

I've heard (in the UK) that being a tax inspector is a great career if you've got good attention to detail, right up to a kind of mid-senior level earning up to £55k-60k per year.

And, as something completely different, I hear a lot of good things about working in a funeral home.
posted by plonkee at 1:09 PM on December 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I know plenty of executive assistants who make in the $80-$100K range with excellent benefits and that's in an area with low wages (and low cost of living). The skills they have they gained on the job, mostly just Microsoft Office and having a lot of institutional knowledge.
posted by HotToddy at 1:27 PM on December 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

One thing to consider is that some skills just come easier to some people. So a person might stumble into a career path that they feel is comically easy for the pay, but that most people would find much more difficult.

And also, some people enjoy things that other people hate! So even if it's hard, they may still just find the particular kind of difficulty to be invigorating.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 2:00 PM on December 18, 2022 [7 favorites]

Anybody saying the building trades are not stressful has not completed a building trades apprenticeship, or arguably ever worked in construction. There are certainly good things about careers in the building trades, but I would not remotely call them "low-stress".

Source: I was a union plumber for 7 years, on both the field side and the pre-construction/design and drafting side, as both an apprentice and a licensed journey-worker.
posted by cnidaria at 2:39 PM on December 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Just as another way to look at how individual this is - I work at a university in a department that handles five or six things that are conceptually related and use a lot of the same soft skills but are also completely distinct in terms of expertise. All the areas of expertise are hard to hire for, so in general we hire for the soft skills and for having *some* experience working at a university previously. We train the expertise post hire. So we all start out basically interchangeable and then specialize. And even so there are two of the groups I'd never work in because the relatively minor conceptual difference between what they do and what I do would stress me out *so* much. But I'd describe my own job as relatively low stress, other than the occasional cranky faculty member who thinks staff are beneath them, which is just a given in any university staff role.

All of that said, I would say that broadly there are a ton of university staff jobs that aren't too hard to get and don't require special expertise to get and aren't terribly stressful depending on your personal stress triggers. If you're having trouble getting one, the cheat code is often to start in the university temp pool and then take the first tolerable position that asks you to stay on, then hop to another internal job after a year or two. Universities love hiring from within, so getting your foot in any door makes you much more desirable for the next position you want to go for.
posted by Stacey at 2:42 PM on December 18, 2022 [6 favorites]

I think this question is underdetermined: how much is enough to live comfortably? I made 40k a couple years out of college in a low stress job where I had to work like 2 hours a day, and was quite comfortable. Now I’m supporting 4 people and a house, I’m well over six figures and I’m probably less comfortable since I have actual expenses and responsibilities.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:53 PM on December 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

Like some others, I think what "causes stress" is extremely personal. I really liked being a copy editor, because every day's newspaper was its own thing. The individual newspaper might be stressful, but it was over and done with once you finished for the night, and everything started fresh -- and the only training I really needed was high school English. Other people would have found that nightly grind exhausting and extremely stressful.

Now I do data protection compliance. It's nitpicky and detail-oriented, and can be very tedious, but I don't find it stressful -- there's no such thing as an emergency in compliance. Breaches are an infosec crisis, and regulatory fines or lawsuits are a legal crisis -- none of the crises belong to compliance. We just make lengthy, detailed documents for other people to have crises about. I find this very relaxing! So on the one hand, it's a brand-new job category and there's no clear path to entry. On the other hand, most people I work with come out of law, accounting, MBA programs, financial compliance, health care compliance, or high-end consulting, so generally leaped some pretty high educational barriers. There are certifications, which are not particularly onerous, but again, most of the people who are seeking them are coming from backgrounds where they attended very good colleges and probably grad school. So, you can 100% stumble into this job from being a bank teller with an AA who did a lot of compliance paperwork, got recognized for being the guy who could check everybody else's, got sent to some conferences by your employer, and now earns six figures doing general data protection compliance. An intelligent layman can absolutely get the certifications -- it doesn't require any special background. But it is a very reading-heavy, writing-heavy career, that deals with a large body of law and regulation, and is extremely detail oriented. For some people that sounds like stress levels that would make them faint. For me, I'm naturally pretty detail-oriented, so I don't find that part stressful.


Regarding professions:

Profession is actually short for "learned profession" and traditionally indicated something that required specific qualifications, where you were expected to learn in an ongoing fashion for the rest of your life, and you were expected to contribute to the intellectual life of the profession. In the medieval era, there were only three professions: Medicine, Law, and Divinity. (Which are the three doctoral degrees awarded by medieval universities: MD, JD (or LL.Ds), and Th.D. Ph.Ds popped up in the 1650s and gradually took over as the academic degree.) Typically once you are qualified, you are expected to exercise independent professional judgment. Professions are also typically self-regulating, with a board of other doctors or lawyers responsible for examining you and ensuring that your education and training is adequate, and also responsible for meteing out punishment for breaking ethical rules.

They were conceived of as sort of very academic jobs, but ones that required you to practice and interact with other humans, and also take responsibility for another person's well-being.

This is much murkier in the modern era. You might conceive of professions as something that has a relatively high bar to entry in terms of formal academic work, something that requires passage of a major exam to acquire certification, or something that requires continuing education throughout your career to keep your license active. Independent judgment and personal ethical obligations are almost certainly required, but the interpersonal interaction piece and being responsible for another person's well-being, probably not so much. Accountants and engineers are probably professions. (Ministry, on the other hand, really isn't in the United States, because you can't require denominations to adhere to national educational requirements.)

I think in today's world I would consider a profession something with a formal bar to entry (education and/or testing) that requires continuing education, but where once you have achieved that initial entry, maintaining the licensure isn't difficult (although sometimes very tedious). Where you are expected to exercise independent judgment and expertise, and held to an ethical standard. And having the licensure enables you to take jobs that are (usually by law) limited to people who have achieved the licensure.


The traditional jokey definition of a profession is "Something that would cease to exist if they were good at their jobs." So if doctors could cure disease, there would be no more doctors; if lawyers created a just world, there would be no more lawyers; if preachers could save all the souls, there would be no more preachers. BUT OH GOSH THERE'S CONSTANTLY MORE OF THEM ALL, so they must be either very bad at their jobs ... or pretty greedy and running a bit of a scam.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:54 PM on December 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: While you obviously can't just start doing a trade tomorrow, you absolutely could start working in a trade tomorrow.

For example: I'm a goldsmith, so I make jewellery - I have many specialized skills. And while you couldn't start doing my job tomorrow, you could start working for me tomorrow, I could teach you, and I will pay you because there are lots of tasks that are just following instructions that you can do right away. Then I can slowly train your eyes and your abilities and in 18 months I will mostly just be checking over your work to make sure it's meeting my standards. and then in 5 years when you're fast and confident, you'll be making a comfortable living.

So I think the answer is: most trades, but only with the caveat that while I wouldn't say working in a trade is stressful, sometimes it is quite difficult. So it might not please someone who doesn't want to worry about it too much!

(one time on a goldsmith forum someone answered someone's troubleshooting problem with "if you wanted an easy job you chose the wrong one, buster!" and I say it to myself so so often.)

There's a ton of jobs that fit the criteria if "a comfortable living" is Hank from King of the Hill, and there's a lot less if "a comfortable living" is Fraiser Crane from Cheers.
posted by euphoria066 at 8:12 PM on December 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There are lots of computer programming jobs that are low stress. I described my last job as being like doing crossword puzzles for pay. As an in-house programmer for a non-computer company, you might find the bulk of your work is adapting programs to new situations as they arise, ans that such adaptations are relatively simple.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:28 AM on December 19, 2022 [5 favorites]

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