People’s working conditions have been high up the news agenda recently and not just in non European parts of the world either. Understandably, considerable concern has been expressed about the impact that low paid jobs with poor and uncertain conditions have on workers’ lives. But what are the impacts of poor or stressful working conditions and job uncertainty on people’s mental health further down the line once they stop working? Morten Wahrendorf from University of Düsseldorf in Germany and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse have carried out research across Europe and found that those with poor jobs and working conditions in mid life are considerably more likely to suffer with depression after they retire.
Right across Europe people are living longer – on the face of it – a good thing. Unfortunately, for many, that increased life expectancy is accompanied by extended periods of poor health or disability – both physical and mental. The consequences of this are deeply worrying for policy makers funding services to care for people, overstretched health professionals and, of course for people themselves and their families.
It’s really important, therefore, to get a better handle on what goes on in our lives before we retire that might be linked to this later poor health. If we can identify what might lie behind it, we are more likely to be able to make changes and put things in place that reduce the risk for future generations.
The research looked at the mental health of nearly 5000 men and 4000 women with an average age of around 70 in 13 European countries and then looked back at their working lives in mid life to see what picture might emerge.
Using information from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), we looked at how stressful their job had been both physically and mentally, how well rewarded and supported they felt, whether they had been laid off or had a period of unemployment. We used a special set of questions asked in the survey to identify whether or not the participants showed signs of depression.
Physically and mentally demanding work
More then a quarter of the men and a fifth of the women reported their job had been highly physically and/or highly mentally demanding. The proportion of women who worked in low-skilled jobs was lower among women compared with men (80 per cent women, 68 per cent men).
With regard to stressful conditions at work, 15 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women said they had had low levels of control at work. 20 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women said the rewards were low and 17 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women said they received low levels of social support.
When we linked their earlier working life to their mental health in retirement, both men and women who had previously worked in mentally stressful jobs were more likely to exhibit signs of depression later on. For men, the strongest links with depression were for those who reported having jobs with a low level of control, whilst for women it was jobs with low levels of social support.
Both men and women who had worked in poor quality jobs were considerably more likely to be depressed than their peers with good jobs. Unsurprisingly, those people who had been unexpectedly laid off from a job in mid life were also more likely to be depressed later. Surprisingly, though unemployment and a fragmented career were associated with depression in men only.
The results stayed strong even after taking account of the workers’ health and social circumstances before middle age.
Clear and robust link
The research reinforces a number of studies drawing a clear and robust link between poor mental health in later life and a disadvantaged working life in middle age, whether that be in terms of working environment or job uncertainty. What’s new here though is tracing that link over people’s lifecourse from middle age into retirement. The research also shows some important and interesting distinctions between men and women.
There is a clear message here too for policy makers, business and health professionals that mid-life is a critical period where appropriate interventions and employment-related policies, such as lifelong learning programmes, through programmes increasing job security, or even mindfulness training, could bring significant benefits to individuals and society more widely, especially in the undeniable context of us all living and working longer.
Working conditions in mid-life and mental health in older ages is research by Morten Wahrendorf, David Blane, Mel Bartley, Nico Dragano and Johanes Siegrist and is published in Advances in Life Course Research.
Photo credit: World Bank