Never too early to intervene to get us working longer

Working for longer is something we are all having to get our heads around. It’s certainly a priority for the Government, which wants to encourage more older people into satisfying jobs that will help them stay happy and healthy as they age. For older people already in good jobs that they enjoy, who have been fit and active for most or all their life, this could be a great opportunity for them and their families. Of course that’s not the case for everyone. Dr Charlotte Clark has been looking at what having poor mental health as a child could mean for our working life in our mid fifties. Here she explains why policy makers and businesses need to pay close attention to the mental wellbeing of the nation if they want to extend people’s working lives successfully.

Working beyond traditional retirement age has been the focus of much attention in recent years as policy makers, businesses and working people across the UK get used to the idea that more of us need to work for longer to take account of the fact that more and more of us are living longer and that this reality comes at a cost.

As things stand, by their mid fifties, many people are not in work because of early retirement, long-term sickness or disability, being or becoming unemployed or because they are long term homemakers. So the onus for working longer tends to fall on those who stay employed through all or most of their lives. But could more be done to encourage and support those most likely not to be working at 55 to do so and then to continue to do so?

Looking right across people’s lives to track what may have influenced a person to leave or not be working at 55 provides us with a much clearer and more nuanced picture than a simple snapshot in time. We wanted to see whether having poor mental health as a child or as an adult might be an important part of that picture and give us some ideas for interventions that could extend the working lives of this group of people in a way that would benefit them and society more widely.

Increasing psychological support

It’s fair to say that the Government’s ambitions to get more people working for longer have been laid out quite clearly already, as has their commitment to putting people’s physical and mental health on an equal footing. Saying that, their commitment has been called into question recently in a report from The King’s Fund, which says parity is a long way off.

When it comes to specific groups not working, the Department for Work and Pensions has tended to focus its attention on benefit claimants rather than other groups who, for one reason or another may choose not to work – housewives and husbands for example.

Government initiatives to try to help people with mental health problems find work have included the ‘Improving Access to Psychosocial Therapies’ (IAPT) programme, which has increased provision of therapies for benefit claimants with depressive and anxiety disorders.

Evaluations of IAPT suggest that ‘Nationally, of [adult] people that finished a course of treatment in IAPT, 45% recover. . . and a further 16% show reliable improvement’. Encouraging results that have led to modest increases in employment, and it’s hoped there will be more positive news on this front.

However, things don’t look quite so encouraging when it comes to younger people with mental health problems and that’s what our research is shining a spotlight on. It’s also an area we believe should be a focus for policy makers and those working with young people including parents and schools. After all, successfully extending people’s working lives can only be done once they successfully enter and then remain in employment. This is less likely for youngsters with poor mental health.

55-year survey

We used information from the National Child Development Study which has followed the lives of thousands of people born in 1958, and collected detailed information about their lives and circumstances.

This included their employment situation and, first and foremost, we were able to see that, at age 55, nearly 19 per cent of the 9,000 participants in the study were not working: 2.8 per cent were unemployed, 5.2 per cent were permanently sick, 3.3 per cent were retired and 7.5 per cent were homemaker/other.

From a very young age, the study also collected information on whether the individuals in the study exhibited signs of depression or worry, whether they were hostile, disobedient or aggressive.

Even when we took account of a wide range of other things such as whether they suffered poor mental health as young or older adults, numbers of other children in the household, whether their partner was employed, qualifications etc. the association with problems as a child were still really strong.

Drilling down into whether those mental health issues were ‘internalized’ or ‘externalized’, we were able to see that those who were depressed or anxious as children were about one and a half times more likely to be unemployed or permanently sick as their peers without problems.

It was a similar story for those who had shown externalised signs such as aggression. They were more than twice as likely to be unemployed or permanently sick, and also more likely to fall into the homemakers/other category too.

Interestingly there was no strong link between poor mental health in childhood and taking early retirement or being employed part-time.

Children’s mental health

Of course there is a lot more at play in children’s lives than we have taken account of in this study. Nevertheless, it is clear from our research that addressing the mental health problems of the very youngest in society could and should be an area for focus and schools, together with parents and those with a responsibility for the wellbeing of young children have key roles to play here.

It seems it is never too early to intervene proactively to try to help young people get and stay on a healthy happy path that will lead to them a productive and satisfying working life that extends well beyond the age of 55. Equally, given that people identifying themselves as ‘homemakers’ rather than unemployed are the largest group not working at age 55, policy makers could consider ways to get this economically inactive group into the workplace, in tandem with its efforts to support the mental health of those people on benefits.

There is also a message here for policy makers about just how important it is to make those promises about parity of esteem between mental and physical health a reality sooner rather than later.

Impact of childhood and adulthood psychological health on labour force participation and exit in later life is research by Charlotte Clark and colleagues and is published in Psychological Medicine. The research is part of the ESRC funded Research on Extended Working Lives (RenEWL) programme at UCL.

 

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