Talking to the People Who Actually Work the Worst Jobs Ever

Hell
A sign points to Hell, Michigan. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

No one—at least no one you like—wants to show up to work every day. There are people who find their jobs fulfilling, welcome the challenges they bring and find a sense of purpose through work. But many more subscribe to the theory that has spawned a thousand coffee mugs: There’s a reason they call it work.

Perhaps because hating your job is so popular, job search site CareerCast has developed an annual survey that determines the absolute worst jobs around. Stress levels, physical demands, pay and hours all factor into their algorithms of supreme misery, and the results are often surprising (newspaper reporter was ranked the worst-of-the-worst in 2013 and 2015, and second-worst in 2014).

Some of the worst jobs make sense. A bad day at the office for enlisted military personnel could be deadly. But what about less-endangered workers whose jobs are, according to a broad range of measures, truly terrible? What’s the worst that could happen to a taxi driver, or a TV broadcaster?

The names aren’t real (some of them have been changed to protect the sources’ jobs, however terrible), but the stories are. And they’re painful.

#12 Worst Job: Flight Attendant

Traveling the world for free and serving adorable mini-boozes should be a blast, right? Not according to CareerCast; the job slipped to 12th-worst this year, but in 2013 and 2014 it made the Top 10.

Paul, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline for nearly 20 years, was surprised it fared so poorly. “I have a lot of flexibility, and I don’t feel like my stress is worse than average,” he says. “Sure, you may wake up at 2:30 or work 16 hours at a stretch, but everyone knows that when they start.”

Paul seems far more even-keeled than, say, any reasonable person, and his bad days sounded worse than anything an average office-worker has ever dealt with: “Once, a passenger wanted the lavatory, and as I opened the door for her, she vomited on my arm, leg and shoe. We were near landing, so I couldn’t deal with it immediately. Another time we had to make an unscheduled landing in Newfoundland. The passengers got to switch planes, but we had to wait for two days while ours got fixed. There’s not much to do for two days in Newfoundland.”

But the worst moment at work was even grimmer than the outer reaches of Canada. “One time, a passenger was inactive for hours. We had medical personnel on board, and they tried to resuscitate her, but eventually we had to divert and land...because she’d died.”

Kinda makes that boring marketing presentation seem less traumatic.

#8 Worst Job: Taxi Driver

With Uber and Lyft on the scene, it’s no surprise many taxi drivers find their jobs frustrating—especially since average take-home pay barely tops $20,000 annually.

But according to Steve, the real problem isn’t the pay or even drunk college-student fares: It’s the crazy people that run taxi companies. “Some guys buy their own medallions, but a lot of places own a fleet and you just rent their cars,” he says. “The family company that hired me seemed OK. It wasn’t until I was already working for them that I realized that Pete, the son, was a complete degenerate. I’d walk in and he’d have a gallon freezer bag full of prescriptions he was dipping into, and he bought hundreds of dollars worth of scratch tickets daily. I’m barely clearing $10 an hour, and he’s blowing thousands on these things.”

Steve continues: “If you don’t own your cab, the maintenance isn’t supposed to be your problem. One day I show up, and the car they want me to drive has a flat. I told them I couldn’t drive it like that, and Pete screams, ‘GO AHEAD AND CHANGE IT, THEN.’ I turned around and drove home in my own car and never saw them again. There are easier ways to make shitty money.”

#5 Worst Job: TV Broadcasting

The Newsroom makes it seem like a calling of almost fathomless importance, where you change hearts and minds and run on pure adrenaline.

According to Kristin Amico, who worked as a producer for a broadcast news show in Boston in the early 2000s, it was “more like a mix of playing therapist to the on-air talent and getting screamed at by people as stressed as you are. People would get fired in the middle of shooting. It was brutal.”

Because of the nature of breaking news, Amico says she was “always on-call.” And while big news events are theoretically what you live for, the reality is “days on end where you can’t even go home to sleep, you just catch naps in the studio in the wee hours of the morning.”

Amico was working during the September 11 attacks. “Most of the area was evacuated, because the station was near a lot of federal buildings, but we were there all day and into the night. That entire week we barely went home. One of the pieces I was working on was about airline safety. I had to pull video to match the script, which meant hours in the tape library finding clips. My boss wasn’t happy with a shot I’d pulled. She wanted a very specific image, and after hours of looking, I couldn’t find it. Rather than swap two seconds of tape, she insisted I call the New York affiliate and make them find it. On September 12. Because they had nothing better to do.”

She adds, “I had to spend even more hours going over her head to the executive producer to get her to back down. It was memorable because it was September 11, and I hadn’t gone home in two days, but honestly, things like that happened every day I worked there.”

#4 Worst Job: Cook

You don’t get the recognition or high drama of being the head chef, and a busy shift doesn’t translate to higher take-home pay like it does for waiters.

In fact, according to Julie True Kingsley, a teacher and entrepreneur who previously worked as a cook, “my life was filled with hours of chopping vegetables, getting spattered by the fryolator and serving people hot dogs from an extremely questionable steamer,” she says. “Time was either painfully slow or insane, but I still earned barely minimum wage.”

One Friday night, the restaurant was extremely understaffed. “I was the only one cooking and after an entire night of crazy, someone ordered 10 pizzas. I was on number five when I realized my hands were too greasy to keep a grip on the paddle. I did my best to steady it, but wound up slamming the entire pizza against a wall. Which, of course, I had to clean up later, right after dealing with the irate, probably-drunk jerk who’d ordered ten pizzas in the first place.”

Kingsley said she’s never worked so frantically, which made the tiny wage even more frustrating. Still, according to her, “the truly awful part is always going home smelling disgusting. Fried onions are not a good perfume.”

#1 Worst Job: Newspaper Reporter

 The only thing worse than long hours, low pay and the stress of constantly working under tight deadlines? Doing it in an industry that, as former reporter Mike M. puts it, “is literally dying right in front of you.”

At the major national paper Mike worked for, “there wasn’t a week that went by without someone getting fired,” he says. “We’re talking people who’d been working there for years getting cut with no notice. Many, many times I saw older staffers crying at their desks because they were unable to adapt to ‘doing more with less,’ which was the paper’s code for not doing quality reporting.”  

The added stress of knowing you could be next made people “even angrier than usual,” which resulted in regularly getting chewed out by “your editor, your sources, other journalists—really, everyone you speak to.”  

He adds, “You think you’re going to be Bob Woodward, but I spent about two years trolling Kanye’s twitter account so we could get to clickbait stories faster than other outlets. The only reason I didn’t get laid off was because they hired me for way less than they paid the experienced guys. Then they laid those guys off.”

Best Job: Actuary

Of course, there are jobs that are actually considered good on the CareerCast scale. One in particular—actuary—came out on top in 2013, in 2015 and held on to slots two and four in 2012 and 2014, respectively. And guess what? It sucks, too.

Though CareerCast ranks it highly for the good pay, predictable hours and low stress, Anita Aysola, who worked for nearly two years as an actuary, says it “is so incredibly boring...and I find applied math, calculus and interest theory interesting.”

Aysola likened her work to “the movie Office Space, except with extremely difficult exams along the way.” Passing the exams earns you higher pay and advances your career but, Aysola says, “by the time you get to the third exam—and you have to study for these things for months in advance, including after-hours—you’re getting into really specialized actuarial math. I sat down to start studying for that one and I remember thinking, I can’t do this anymore, it’s just. Too. Boring.”  

Worst of all, Aysola’s coworkers (much like the Office Space crew), didn’t seem to agree. “All they ever talked about was work. Give it a rest. I remember one time I was in the bathroom and I heard one woman cackling about ‘the gateway percentage being so high’ and the person she’s talking to cracks up, like it’s the funniest thing in the world.”

Aysola conceded the pay and benefits were good, but opted to leave the field in order to find something she could be passionate about. She is now a working singer/songwriter and mathematics teacher. “There’s more to a job than the benefits, after all.”

Jilly Gagnon is a writer and humorist working in Boston. Her book alongside Mike MacDonald, Choose Your Own Misery: The Office Adventure, a satirical send-up of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of yore, comes out January 2016 from Diversion Publishing and is available for pre-order.