Worst job in the world?

We’ve all had jobs that we’ve loved, and gigs that were the pits. So what sets them apart?

It can't be about the money because I know lots of people in cushy, well paying jobs that hate their work. So it must be about the stimulation and challenge you receive from the role, and whether you feel you are making a difference.

The Forbes' list of the 10 happiest jobs is certainly based more on satisfaction than salary. It says the happiest among us are clergymen, firefighters, physical therapists, authors, special education teachers, teachers, artists, psychologists, financial services sales agents, and operating engineers.

The most hated jobs included director of sales and marketing or marketing manager, product managers and law clerks. These are the jobs, we are told, where people feel that they are trapped and going nowhere.

The job search firm CareerCast has its own list of the world’s best and worst jobs.  Software engineers, mathematicians, actuaries, statisticians, computer systems analysts, meteorologists, biologists, historians, audiologists, and dental hygienists were the lucky ones.

The worst jobs, according to the list, included taxi drivers, construction workers, meter readers, welders, painters and ironworkers.

"This is what underlies the difference between the happiest jobs and the most hated jobs,’’ Forbes' Denning writes. “One set of jobs feels worthwhile, while in the other jobs, people can’t see the point.”

However he says that bad jobs could be improved if they were made more innovative and focused on customers. 

“The problems in the most hated jobs can’t be solved by job redesign or clearer career paths. Instead the organisations must undertake fundamental change to manage themselves in a radically different way with a focus on delighting the customer through continuous innovation and all the consequent changes that are needed to accomplish that.”

It’s an interesting point. Consider for example this list of the best companies to work for in Australia. Companies on the list include Google Australia, software company Atlassian, online experience retailer RedBalloon, and Deloitte - which is probably the most interesting of all the accounting firms.

The companies on the list tend to be big on innovation and customer experience. And for the second year in a row, Google (which handed its employees a ten per cent raise in 2010 and provides workers with funky offices, massages and naps on company time) is the company Australians would most like to work for.

Writing in Psychology Today, Eva Ritvo, vice chair of psychiatry at the University of Miami,  says great jobs are the ones where you feel you are making a difference to people’s lives. That can be any sort of job, from a software developer to a doctor or psychologist. She says the job should also offer you plenty of opportunities for development.

Still, you have to take these sorts of lists with a grain of salt. Everyone is different. There are plenty of people around who would not regard mathematics as that interesting a career option, and many of us would not enjoy the roles of accountants, software engineers or actuaries, whether or not we had the proficiency or training to the job.

And I know of one professor of medicine who’s probably happy he didn’t take the advice of the vocational guidance counsellors when he was at school who said he’d be a terrific pastry chef. 

I’ve also met construction workers and painters who are perfectly happy with their job. They wouldn’t agree with any list that said their job was the pits. But because everyone is different, not everyone would agree. Teaching, for example, is on the best jobs list but I know a few teachers looking to get out.

And happy or not, someone out there has to do those jobs that are universally considered difficult. Someone has to be a police officer, someone has to work for an oil company or a mining company or serve at a supermarket cash register. 

Is every cop unhappy? I don’t think so.

The fact is that the "best and worst job" labels are likely to change over time. It wasn’t that long ago, for example, when people selling financial service products were regarded with contempt. Now it’s flavour of the month.

So what happens if you are in a job you hate? Are there ways to make a bad job good? Blogger Penelope Trunk suggests doing things like making a friend at work, reducing commute time, and doing things that make you feel good, like going to the gym or doing good deeds. Trunk says the best jobs are the ones that stretch you without defeating you, provide you clear goals and provide you with unambiguous feedback. 

You could do other things too. Pick up part-time study, a second job, or even volunteer, to stretch your horizons and build your network and skills.

What do you think are the best and worst jobs out there?