Author Archives: Chris Garrington

Retirement: good or bad for your heart?

Across the globe, more people are spending more time in retirement than ever before. So staying healthy in later life is critical. Yet political debates on ageing tend to ignore a growing body of research on how retirement can affect our health. Baowen Xue and colleagues from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL looked at links between retirement and cardio-vascular disease – and found unexplained differences between Europe and the US.

Is retirement good for your heart, or bad for it? The question is an important one because cardio-vascular disease (CVD) is the biggest cause of death globally and costs health services a huge amount of money.

Some studies have shown retired people have a higher risk of being diagnosed with CVD than those who are still working. But until now the evidence has been unclear.

We set out to review evidence from across the world, so that we could help to build a more accurate picture of whether, and how, retirement might affect our cardio-vascular health. As CVD is linked to our lifestyle, diet and other behaviour, there are lots of ways in which changes that take place in retirement might have an effect – both negative or positive.

Longitudinal studies

We looked for longitudinal studies that could help answer our questions, and found 82 which measured risk factors for CVD and 14 which looked at actual incidence of CVD. The second set of 14 papers provided the answer to our first question – does retirement affect our cardio-vascular health?

The answer revealed a major difference between the USA and Europe. Studies conducted in the US showed no significant effect, good or bad, on retirees’ cardio-vascular health. In Europe, meanwhile – with the exception of France – studies consistently showed a link between retirement and an increase in CVD.

Data from the British Regional Heart Study, for instance, showed that healthy men who retired before the age of 60 were more likely than others to die from circulatory disease within five and a half years. Fatal and non-fatal CVD was also more common among retirees in Denmark, Greece, Italy and the Netherlands.

Why might this be? Could there be cultural or lifestyle differences between Europe and the US which might cause this difference? We took a systematic look at the risk factors.

Weight gain

First, we looked at weight gain. If Americans were less likely to put on weight after retirement compared to Europeans, that might help to explain the difference. But when we looked at this, we found that body mass index (BMI) actually increased after retirement in the USA – and also Japan -but did not change in England, Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland or Korea. While those who do physically demanding jobs are likely to put on weight after they retire, most people aren’t.

Could it be that retired people generally do less exercise – another risk factor – in Europe? The studies suggest that’s not the reason. While many retirees did more physical activities, they also spent more time sitting still – so the effect was a balanced one. For instance, a retiree might play more golf, but also watch more television.

Do retired people perhaps smoke more, we asked? Again, there were contradictory results but 12 out of 14 studies either showed no effect or showed retirement led to people smoking less.

Perhaps retired people in Europe drink more, then? Again, this couldn’t be identified as the reason. Studies in Australia, the UK, Japan and the USA suggested there was no association between retirement and alcohol consumption.

Diet is another possible cause of CVD, but again, there was no clear pattern of between retirement and diet emerged from reviewed studies.

No benefits

So the picture isn’t straightforward, and we don’t have answers as to why retirement might put Europeans at risk but not Americans. What we can say, though, is that none of the studies we looked at found any beneficial effects of retirement on CVD.

Apart from a decrease in smoking, there wasn’t evidence of any general ‘relief’ effect of retirement on people’s cardio-vascular health – so the supposition that working could be bad for our health and therefore retirement better for it doesn’t necessarily hold true.

However, studies that showed retirement brought negative health effects should be interpreted with caution. Many assessed the health effects of retirement by comparing retired people with employed people – and we know people who stay in the labour market are generally healthier than retirees. We do know people who have CVD, diabetes or hypertension are more likely to retire.

What our review has done is to reveal the complex nature of the underlying mechanism through which retirement might impact on the risk factors for CVD. Different people react differently to retirement, depending on their life experiences and the cultural and policy environments in which they live. So there isn’t one global solution to any of this – each country needs to plan its citizens’ retirement according to their individual needs.

The impact of retirement on cardiovascular disease and its risk factors: A systematic review of longitudinal studies, by Baowen Xue, Jenny Head and Anne McMunn, is published by The Gerontologist.

Is working flexibly good for your health?

Flexible working is considered good practice – and in England, most workers have the right to apply to work flexibly after they’ve been in their job six months. But what do we know about the benefits? A new study by Tarani Chandola and colleagues used biological measures to look at differences in stress markers among workers with reduced hours and those without.

In recent years many employees have been able to alter their work patterns to fit in with childcare and other responsibilities. Typically, this can mean working part-time, job-sharing, only working during school term-times or working from home some of the time.

It’s assumed this should help to relieve stress. But until now, we didn’t know whether this was necessarily the case. After all, there could be down-sides – for example working at home can mean a blurring of the boundaries between work and family time, part-time working can be a barrier to promotion and job-sharing can bring its own tensions.

Until recently we had to rely on workers’ own reports of how they felt in order to judge this interplay between work, family life and stress. But now a number of social surveys have begun collecting samples which allow us to measure biological changes which can indicate stress, too.

This is known as ‘allostatic load’ – when we’re repeatedly subjected to stress or trauma, this can lead to chronically heightened levels of stress hormones. And that is associated with all sorts of long-term health problems, such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and depression.

We were able to use data from participants in the Understanding Society study, which began in 2009 and which follows more than 60,000 adults in 40,000 households. As well as responding to detailed questionnaires, many of them have been visited by nurses who have taken physical measurements and blood samples.

Blood-based markers

As well as blood-based markers such as insulin growth factor 1 and cholesterol, their pulse rate, blood pressure and waist-to height ratio were also measured.

After taking out those who weren’t employed, who didn’t have the nurse visits or for whom some measurements were missing, we had a sample of a little over 6,000 people.

All those people had been asked whether flexible working arrangements were available at their workplace, how many hours they worked and whether they were the primary carer for their children.

We categorised working hours into three groups, with different levels for men and women because they tend to have very different working patterns. So women were grouped into those working less than 24 hours per week, more than 25 hours and more than 37 hours; while men were grouped into those working less than 37 hours, 37-40 hours and more than 40 hours.

Unsurprisingly, we found more women than men had made use of flexible working  arrangements – almost no men in our sample were the main carers for two or more children.

Chronic stress

There were particularly high levels of biological chronic stress markers among women with childcare responsibilities who worked more than 37 hours per week. Those with similar childcare responsibilities but working fewer than 25 hours per week didn’t have any measurable effect on their stress levels.

Both men and women who had access to, and made use of, reduced-hours flexible working had lower levels of biological stress markers than those who didn’t have flexible working.

We found these types of reduced-hours arrangement were more common among those in lower-paid occupations, especially among men, and among older workers of both genders.

Other types of flexible working arrangements, such as working from home, were more common among those from more advantaged social groups. But we didn’t find any association between these types of working and lowered levels of stress.

So, what has our study told us? We’ve learned a good deal about the complex relationships between social and biological factors in our lives. And, crucially for policymakers, we can see that it’s particularly important for women with childcare responsibilities to be able to access shorter working hours when they need to. For employers, this isn’t just a matter of logistics and of ensuring a stable and happy workforce – it’s also a major factor in ensuring that workers live longer and healthier lives.

Are Flexible Work Arrangements Associated with Lower Levels of Chronic Stress-Related Biomarkers? A Study of 6025 Employees in the UK Household Longitudinal Study, is research by Tarani Chandola (University of Manchester and UCL), Cara Booker, Meena Kumari and Michaela Benzeval (University of Essex) and is published in Sociology.

Woman worker

Anti-social working hours: Are they making women depressed?

The rise of globalisation and the 24/7 economy are fuelling demands for people to work long hours and weekends.  But what’s the evidence about how these ways of working link with depression? Gill Weston and colleagues from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL and Queen Mary University of London found such working conditions are linked to poorer mental health in women. 

Across the globe, the effects of overwork are becoming apparent.  In eastern Asian countries the risk of death due to overwork has increased.  In the UK, work-related stress accounts for millions of lost working days every year.  

Within the EU, a significant proportion of people have to work unsociable hours – with nearly a quarter working most Saturdays and a third working at least one Sunday a month.  But despite this, there isn’t much clear evidence about the links between work patterns and mental health. 

Some studies have found a connection between unsociable work patterns and depression.  But many of the studies only focused on men, some only looked at specific types of worker or workplaces and few took account of work conditions such as whether workers had any control over how fast they worked.  

To address these gaps, we set out to look for links between long or irregular hours and depression using a large nationally representative sample of working men and women in the UK.  We particularly wanted to look at whether there were differences between men and women because research has shown that work is organised, experienced and rewarded differently for men and women, and because men and women react differently to overwork and time pressure. 

We used data from Understanding Society, which surveys people living in 40,000 households across the UK.  In particular we focused on information about working hours, weekend working and working conditions collected from 11,215 working men and 12,188 working women between 2010 and 2012.  They had completed a questionnaire designed to study levels of psychological distress.

Who works the most? 

We found men tended to work longer hours in paid work than women, and having children affected men’s and women’s work patterns in different ways: while mothers tended to work fewer hours than women without children, fathers tended to work more hours than men without children.  

Two thirds of all men worked weekends, compared with half of all women.  Those who worked all or most weekends were more likely to be in low skilled work and to be less satisfied with their job and their earnings than those who only worked Monday to Friday or some weekends 

Which workers have the most depressive symptoms? 

Women in general are more likely to be depressed than men, and this was no different in our study. 

Independent of their working patterns, we also found that workers with the most depressive symptoms were older, smokers, on lower incomes, in physically demanding jobs, and who were dissatisfied at work. 

Are long and irregular hours linked to depression? 

Taking these findings and other factors into account, when we looked at the mental health effects of work patterns on men and on women, the results were striking: while there was little or no difference in depressive symptoms between men who worked long hours and those who did not, this was not the case for women.   

Those women who worked 55 hours or more per week had a higher risk of depression than women working a standard 35-40 hour week.   

Similarly weekend working showed differences for men and women.  Compared to workers who only worked on weekdays, men who worked weekends also had a greater number of depressive symptoms, but only if they had little control at work or were dissatisfied with work.  Whereas for women,  regardless of their control or satisfaction, working most or all weekends was linked to more depressive symptoms. 

Why might women suffer more than men while working these antisocial hours?  

There might be a number of reasons why women might be more affected than men: 

  • Women who work long hours are in a minority – just four per cent of them in our sample worked 55 hours or more per week. This may place them under additional pressure. 
  • Women working longer hours tend to be in male-dominated occupations, and this may also contribute to stress. 
  • Women working weekends tend to be concentrated in low-paid service sector jobs, which have been linked to higher levels of depression. 
  • Many women face the additional burden of doing a larger share of domestic labour than men, leading to extensive total work hours, added time pressures or overwhelming responsibilities.  

What should be done about these risks? 

Our findings should encourage employers and policy-makers to think about how to reduce the burdens and increase support for women who work long or irregular hours – without restricting their ability to work when they wish to.  More sympathetic working practices could bring benefits both for workers and for employers – of both sexes. 

Long work hours, weekend working and depressive symptoms in men and women: Findings from a UK population-based study by Gill Weston, Afshin Zilanawala, Elizabeth Webb, Livia Carvalho, and Anne McMunn is published in the  Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which is published by the BMJ. 

Can ‘nudge’ theory help extend working lives?

Government policy in the UK and other industrialised countries aims to increase the numbers of people staying on in work for longer – but there are significant differences between different groups. Can social and economic factors explain them? Or is there truth in the suggestion that some groups of workers are ‘resistant’ to staying in work, particularly in poorer areas? Nicola Shelton and colleagues from UCL looked at regional differencesin extending working lives and found policymakers may need to rethink their approach.

Despite the government’s stated desire for longer working lives, many workers still stop working before state pension age. The proportion of 60 year-olds in work in England and Wales is 20 per cent lower than the proportion of 50 year-olds, according to 2011 census data. 

And this drop in work participation rates isn’t uniform: Existing research tells us those with lower educational qualifications – particularly women –are more likely than others to leave work early.

So, why might that be?  Some official publicationshave suggested there may be resistance to continuing in work among some groups– perhaps in areas where there are fewer professional or skilled jobs, and where levels of deprivation and unemployment are high.

We wanted to find out more about this:  what regional differences are there in the age at which people leave work? Are there gender differences? Are there particular factors – working conditions, household or individual factors – which can promote extended working lives? And if there are, how do they affect any regional variations?  

There is some previous research on the subject. 

studyusing the ONS Longitudinal Study(ONS‐LS) and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageingfound those in lower-grade jobs, those previously unemployed, those with health problems and those with no dependent children tended to  stay longer in work, along with women from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds and single women. The study included just two areas, comparing the South, East and Midlands with the North of England and Wales.  

Similar evidence exists from other countries – In FranceNorwayand Great Britain, links have been found between unemployment and deprivation and retirement rates.

Census data

We used census data – a one per cent sample of the total population – to look at what happened to adults who were aged between 40 and 49 in 2001.  This ONS‐LS data covers more than 33,000 women and just under 32,000 men who were therefore aged 50-59 in 2011. 

We found men in the North East were significantly less likely to extend their working lives than others. Those in the South West and South East were 1.6 times more likely to stay on than those in the North East, in the East of England 1.5 times, and in the East Midlands 1.4 times. 

Women in all regions apart from London and Wales were significantly more likely to stay in work than those in the North East, with figures ranging from 1.15 times in the North West and West Midlands to 1.6 times in the South West.

But when we did further analysis, we found that for men at least, other social factors could explain these differences. Put bluntly, the reason men in the North East leave work earlier is because they tend to have fewer qualifications and less favourable employment status – both of which are associated with shortened working lives.

When we did the same analysis for women, we found some additional factors which affected their likelihood of staying on in work. Those in lower-skilled jobs were less likely still to be in work by 2011, along with those working for larger employers. Those who worked away from home were also more likely to have left, along with those who worked long hours. 

And again, – when we considered these factors along with prior employment, health, social status and caring responsibilities, and only those in the South West were significantly more likely to stay on than those in the North East. 

Working conditions

So, what can governments do? Given a good work environment, choosing to remain in work may have positive benefits such as maintaining good health and functioning and providing a sense of purpose- so working conditions are important.

The biggest single factor in determining whether workers stay on for longer is prior employment – and that is not likely to be changed by behavioural approaches such as the ‘nudge’ theory of behavioural economics which is popular with policy makers.

Policies that do not address issues such as low levels of education and high levels of unskilled employment can only be partially successful in enabling people to work for longer. Indeed, some groups who may have the most financial need to remain in work are most likely to leave earlier. This is particularly an issue for women.

Policies that increase skills and education in later life, rather than simply targeting those ‘receptive’ to extended working, will be more likely to make a difference.

Gender differences and individual, household, and workplace characteristics: Regional geographies of extended working lives, is research by Nicola Shelton, Jenny Head, Ewan Carr and Paola Zaninotto, and is published in Population Space and Place. 

Work-Life conflict. Is it different for men and women?

For some people, working life comes to an end because the job is causing problems at home. Others may decide to leave – or be forced to leave – because family responsibilities are interfering with their ability to do their job. But what are the gender differences in these scenarios? Baowen Xue and colleagues from the RenEWL project at UCL found that experiencing work-family conflict influenced men and women differently. 

The Government’s desire to extend our working lives is one of  the most  significant  policy developments  in  recent times. Its decisions on retirement age could potentially make us healthier and wealthier, but they could also lead to greater inequality.

So, it’s important to understand the interplay, and the potential conflict, between work and home. What happens when the work-life balance just isn’t working? And who bears the brunt of that? Our new evidence suggests that where there’s a work-family conflict it’s more often women who compromise by leaving the world of work – even though their less generous pension provision might suggest they have a greater need to stay.

The population in most western societies has been ageing  for the  last  few  decades and resulting pressures  on  social benefits  systems  have increased  interest  in explaining  when  and why older  people  leave work.  Previous studies have looked for links between leaving work and marital status, for instance, or number of dependent children. But we wanted to go further, measuring the problem over time, studying older workers in their late career stage,  and looking at other factors such as health and working conditions.

These issues cut both ways, of course – for some, a heavy workload may cause problems by interfering with the time they have available for family. For others, caring for an older relative  might be incompatible  with work responsibilities.  Either problem could have knock-on effects, such as lessening job satisfaction, forcing workers to take time off or even to quit.

There’s lots of evidence that both poor working conditions and stresses in the family are linked to early retirement, but what about these work-family conflicts?  We used data from a major study of British civil servants to look at how such issues might relate to people leaving work in the later stages of their careers.   

Gender gap

Over the  last few decades,  women have established  themselves  in  the  workplace, but  men  have been  much  slower to  take  up more domestic  labour  (Sullivan, 2000).  Working women  are  often  found  to be  primarily responsible  for their families.

And men and women  often  have different experiences of work. When men leave  their  jobs, they  are leaving roles that  have typically  dominated  their whole adulthood.  Women,  however, are more likely to have moved  in and  out of  the  labour force  and  part-time jobs while managing shifting household responsibilities.

So, stopping work may have different meanings  for men and women. Women, too, are less  likely than  men  to be  covered  by a  pension – and they may therefore be less inclined to hang on in there when family responsibilities are pressing.

We used the Whitehall II study, which followed civil servants based in London in the late 1980s and who were aged 35 to 55 when recruited to the study. We looked at data gathered from those participants during a 10-year period from the early 1990s – a sample of around 7000 people; 5000 men and 2000 women.

They were asked to say whether they felt family interfered with their work – or work with family –not at all, to some extent or a great deal, with a further category for those who didn’t have family or who felt the question was not applicable to them. They were also asked questions about whether they felt work interfered with family.

We classified those who were not working during follow-up interviews as having left due to long- sickness, retirement, unemployment or homemaking and other reasons.

We found there were significant gender differences in the decision to leave work for family reasons, whether because work was clashing with family or vice versa.

Women who experienced family interference with work were more likely to retire or leave to be a homemaker. Whereas men were more likely to stay in work if they felt family interfered with their work.  Conversely, we did not find any significant link between men’s decisions to leave and a sense that work was affecting their family life. And indeed, the likelihood of retiring was lower among men who felt family was interfering with their work. 

Women, though, were significantly more likely to leave work through either retirement or the homemaker route if they felt work was interfering with family – though these effects disappeared when we took other background factors such as working conditions and their sense of control within the family into account. The decisions women made were partly accounted for by factors such as caring responsibilities and sense of control in the home.

We looked at several factors that might account for relationships between work-family conflict and exit from work. Men and  women with  one  or two  dependent  children, rather  than  none, were  more likely  to retire.  Men who had a high degree of agency and control at work  were  less likely  to retire,  but  such psychosocial  working  conditions were  not connected  with women’s retirement.  Men and women  with lower  home  control, men with  three  or more dependent  children,  and women  with  caring responsibilities  were  more likely  to leave for family reasons. 

We found more women had  caring responsibilities than men, but  more  than twice as many men  had dependent children  in  the household.  Women reported  higher control  at  home than  men.  

Retirement was the  most  frequent reason for leaving work, with just over four out of five men and just under four out of five women taking this route. More women  than men  left  work  for health or home-making reasons, and slightly more men left through unemployment.  The average age  at leaving was  60 years for men  and  59 for women.  Female homemakers were  youngest when leaving  work, on average  56 years.

So why the gender difference? It is possible  that where  there  is a  work family  conflict for  both partners,  it  is more likely  that  women will  be  the ones  to  compromise and  to  leave work. As women  have fewer  financial resources  (including  pension wealth)  and  on average  contribute  fewer earnings  to the  household  than men,  they  may therefore  have  less ‘bargaining  power’  on work decisions  than  their male  partners.

But that leaves women in a double-bind: they are the ones to leave early, but that diminishes their chances of increasing an already smaller pension pot. So, what can policy-makers do? 

Adjustments  in  the workplace, such  as  flexible  working hours  and  higher social  support,  could reduce  work-family  conflict and help  these  women to  remain  in work.  

We have known for some time that work-family conflict could  be an  important  issue for  younger  people with  children,  but our  study underscores  the importance  of  this issue for  older  people’s labour  market participation too.  As women tend to retire at a  younger  age than  men,  and as pressures  on  social benefits  systems  are increasing due to an ageing population, it  is important for policy-makers to think hard about finding ways to  reduce  work-family conflict for women  across working  life.

Work and family conflict in relation  to work  exit in  later career  stage:  a 20 years follow-up  of Whitehall  II study, by Baowen  Xue, Maria Fleischmann, Jenny  Head, Anne  McMunn, and Mai Stafford is published in The Journals of Gerontology.

Would reducing social inequality lead to more years of healthy life?

Across Europe, there’s good news for older people – life expectancy is on the rise and levels of disability among older people are falling. But there are concerns that a longer life may not be a better life for all. So who benefits from increased life expectancy?  Jenny Head and colleagues from the IDEAR network find those with a higher occupational status can expect the greatest number of years of healthy, disease-free life.

We know from lots of studies that there are big differences in life expectancy between different social groups. And we know that those in higher social positions tend to benefit more from that rise in healthy life expectancy.

But, given that many governments expect people to extend their working lives, we specifically need to know about the different expectations of people in different occupational positions – which is slightly different.

Together with colleagues in the IDEAR networK, we looked at what those from different occupational backgrounds might expect in later life – to be precise, how many years with good health can they expect to enjoy between the ages of 50 and 75?

The data came from four cohort studies in England, Finland, France and Sweden.

We were able to look at data from 9,213 people in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing from 2002 onwards. We also had information on 42,978 people who took part in the Finnish Public Sector study between 1997 and 2013. In France, we used the GAZEL Cohort Study, which gathered information from 18,263 people working for the national utility company from 1989 onwards. And in Sweden, we looked at a sample of 8,186 people who responded to the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health between 2003 and 2014.

Health measures

We used two health measures: whether participants rated their own health as good or poor, and whether they had ever been diagnosed with heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease, cancer or diabetes.

In all the cohorts, people in lower occupational positions could expect fewer years of life than those in higher occupational positions – and they could expect to spend fewer of those remaining years in good health.

So in England, both men and women in high-grade occupations could expect more than four years’ extra healthy life when compared with men and women in lower-grade occupations. In Finland that gap was wider, with those in high-grade jobs expecting at least six and a half years more good health. In France the difference was around two and a half years, while Sweden had the smallest gap of a little more than two years.

This pattern was consistent across the four countries and for both men and women. There were also socioeconomic inequalities in chronic disease-free life expectancy, although these differences were less marked than for self-rated health.

Better understanding

Why does this matter? A better understanding of the future health of older people is crucial to policy-makers because it affects public expenditure on income, health and long-term care. It also matters because governments want to extend working lives and increase State Pension ages, and in order to do that they need older workers to stay healthy.

Our results indicate that those in lower socioeconomic positions may be doubly disadvantaged because they have worse health but may also need to work longer for financial reasons. To achieve extended working lives for all, policy-makers will need to find ways of reducing those social class differences in health expectancies.

Socioeconomic differences in healthy and disease-free life expectancy between ages 50 and 75: a multi-cohort study, by  Jenny Head, Holendro Singh Chungkham , Martin Hyde, Paola Zaninotto, Kristina Alexanderson, Sari Stenholm, Paula Salo, Mika Kivimäki, Marcel Goldberg, Marie Zins, Jussi Vahtera and Hugo Westerlund, is published in the European Journal of Public Health.

 

Early retirement – can welfare systems help ease the transition?

The post-war baby boomgeneration in developed countries is reaching retirement age and this is placing strain on welfare systems. Sol Richardson and colleagues from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL find the type of welfare system under which we live can affect our prospects of having a happy and fulfilled retirement.

We know stopping work can lead to changes in our sense of personal wellbeing both positive and negative. And we know this can be influenced by a range of factors, such as whether an individual has left work at the usual age or has stopped early.

There are other factors which can make a difference to how we fare after retirement, too: If we were dismissed, retired through illness or through unemployment, for instance, the change is more likely to hit us hard.  

But how much difference do the different types of welfare system which exist in different countries make to those who leave work early? Until now we havent had much clear evidence on this point.

Data

We looked at a sample of people from 16 countries, using data from the Study of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) between 2004 and 2013, and from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) between 2002 and 2013 these are studies which revisit their participants over time.

Our subjects were aged 50 years and over and had been visited before and after they left work.

We looked at a total sample of 8037 respondents who had left work between 2002 and 2013 and for whom we had information not only on work history but also on personal wellbeing.

We categorised how people left work according to the type of benefit they received afterwards: Were they receiving disability benefit, unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, social assistance, early retirement pension, old age pension or none of those?

Retirement age is different in different countries it can depend on gender or on the number of years worked, and its been rising in many countries. So we defined retirement as the earliest age at which an individual can draw a full pension if he or she has been working since the age of 20.

And we looked at the wellbeing of our subjects, using a validated scale called CASP-12 (control, autonomy, self-realization and pleasure.)

And then we compared these findings according to the type of welfare regime the participants had in their home countries again using an internationally-recognised scheme that relates to how social benefits are granted and organized.

Negative effects

We found that those who left the labour market because of unemployment or disability and who left outside of the typical time-frame tended to experience negative effects on their personal wellbeing.

How much difference did country of residence make? We found this was significant, but that only a small proportion of the difference was down to the country itself. Almost two thirds of the wellbeing gaps we found between individuals in different countries could be accounted for, we found, by the type of welfare system they had.

Those living in Scandinavian social democratic welfare systems experienced the most positive transitions but this effect is unlikely to be down to expenditure alone. Other factors could be important for instance, employment rules guiding the ways people left work. Different finance mechanisms, the extent of benefit coverage and the eligibility regime for those benefits could also have an effect.  

When we looked at the different types of welfare system we found people in systems which could be described as Bismarckian,such as France or Germany, or  Scandinavian,such as Sweden or Denmark, did better than those in systems which could be categorised as Mediterranean,such as Italy or Greece.

As a generalisation, Scandinavian systems can be described as Social Democratic. They spend the most, they have high levels of cash benefits and a strong emphasis on services.

Bismarckian countries emphasise earnings-related cash benefits like pensions and they provide reasonable services, but not at the level of Social Democratic countries.

In Mediterranean countries, the pensions system is fragmented and services are rudimentary. People living in Mediterranean systems are more likely to rely on family and the voluntary sector for support.

Policy implications

What lessons should policy-makers draw from our study? We found that higher expenditure per head, particularly expenditure on non-healthcare services such as home help, did help our participants to feel better after they left paid work.

And our results have important implications for welfare policy: They underscore the importance of welfare services as greater numbers of workers approach retirement age and leave the labour market.

Country-level welfare-state measures and change in wellbeing following work exit in early old age: evidence from 16 European countries, by Sol Richardson, Ewan Carr, Gopalakrishnan Netuveli and Amanda Sacker, is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, 2018, 113.

Working with a long-term illness – does employment status make a difference?

Across the developed world, a growing share of the population suffers from chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or heart problems – in the EU, around 45 per cent of those aged 55-64 had such a disease in 2015. And that affects their ability to work: just half of those with chronic illnesses are employed, compared to three quarters of those without. But how do the self-employed cope with such conditions, when compared with those in employment? Maria Fleischmann and colleagues from the RenEWL project find these differences in work status can make a major difference.

We know that when people become chronically ill, changes in their working conditions can help them to continue working. And we also know that good working conditions – being able to control how you use your time and how you do your job, whether you make the decisions and whether you feel valued, for instance – can help all of us to stay in paid work for longer.

And of course, if you become ill you’re more likely to feel the need to take time off or maybe to give up work altogether. We wanted to compare how the employed and the self-employed adjust their working conditions when facing a diagnosis of chronic disease.

Existing research tells us that many older people work for employers, and have to ask for their approval when it comes to making adjustments to their working conditions. The self-employed, meanwhile, are much more able to make their own decisions and tend to feel they have more control over their working lives.

We looked at people’s ability to control their work: physical demands, working hours, psychological demands such as how fast they had to work, and social aspects such as whether they felt valued.

And we had a great source of data for this – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a total of almost 9,000 over-50s since 2002.

From that group we were able to find and study 1389 participants who reported no chronic diseases when they were interviewed in 2004-5 – the second wave of interviews – and who were in work.  We were then able to look at what happened to them before the seventh wave of interviews, in 2013-14.

A little over 40 per cent of our sample were in managerial or professional occupations, a quarter in intermediate occupations, and almost 30 per cent in routine and manual occupations.

After diagnosis

At each interview, respondents were asked whether they had been diagnosed by a doctor with lung disease, asthma, arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes or high blood sugar, stroke or heart problems.

During the study period 510 of the 1389 sample members were newly diagnosed with one of those conditions. We were able to look at how they fared at work for four years after that, and we found some striking differences between how the employed and the self-employed seemed to have been treated.

The physical demands of our participants’ jobs were pretty similar before their diagnosis, for instance. But afterwards significant numbers of those who were employed said that those demands had actually increased when they were diagnosed. The self-employed, meanwhile, told us the opposite had happened to them – they reported significantly lower physical demands at work immediately after diagnosis. This effect continued for some time, though it grew less pronounced.

How could that be? We think maybe the increase in physical demands among the employed could be due to perception – similar demands might be perceived as more strenuous by the chronically ill. The self-employed, meanwhile, have more freedom to adjust those demands when they feel they need to.

The self-employed reported that their working hours dropped by an average of 2.8 hours per week on diagnosis, while those who were employed did not see a change. This effect was not statistically significant, though.

Employees found that their level of autonomy at work also dropped marginally, while for the self-employed there was no significant change. We did not find any major changes in psychological or social conditions in either group.

So, what did we learn? Essentially, that improvements in working conditions after diagnosis of chronic illness were restricted to the self-employed. So employers may need to ask themselves some hard questions – do they want to hold on to workers who become unwell? If they do, then they should consider the levels of flexibility they offer, and they should think about making adjustments for those workers if they don’t want to lose them.

In an ageing society, older people are expected to work ever longer and therefore to remain at work even when they begin to suffer from health problems. Our findings should also encourage policy-makers and governments to think about how chronically ill older adults are treated at work.

Changes in autonomy, job demands and working hours after diagnosis of chronic disease: a comparison of employed and self-employed older persons using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA)by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Baowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Stephen A Stansfeld, Mai Stafford and Jenny Head, is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

 

Being a carer: a sizeable problem

Millions of people combine work with caring responsibilities – looking after an older relative, a disabled child or a partner, for example. But what are the effects on the health of those who do this? Rebecca Lacey and colleagues from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have found that younger women and those who juggle working and caring are at higher risk of being obese.

The number of people who care for others without pay is huge – and it’s growing. In the United Kingdom there are more than seven million such carers – around one in five adults. About six in 10 of them are women.

We know from existing studies that becoming a carer can mean having to stop work – but an ageing society, extended working lives and cuts in social care funding mean those doing this unpaid caring are also increasingly often juggling their caring responsibilities and paid work.

Caring is linked to behaviour which leads to health risks, as well as to poorer health. Carers can suffer from the deterioration of their relationships with those they care for – particularly when the person needing to be cared for has dementia. They have to juggle caring and other responsibilities, resulting in little time for themselves: this means they may have less time to exercise and to eat healthily. They can also suffer additional financial burdens. All this can lead to measurably higher levels of stress – for example, research has shown that carers have higher levels of cortisol, which can cause the body to lay down fat. We wanted to know more about whether particular groups of carers were at increased risk of being obese.

We were able to use a major study, Understanding Society, which has followed a representative sample of 40,000 UK households since 2009 and which is also linked to another study, the British Household Panel Survey, which first started in 1991.

This enabled us, for the first time, to look at obesity amongst UK carers from the age of 16 onwards: previous studies had only looked at older carers or carers of those with specific conditions such as dementia.

We had information on 9,421 participants who had also been visited by nurses for health checks between 2009 and 2012, of whom 1,282 were carers. We were able to look at factors such as Body Mass Index (BMI) alongside whether participants had an illness or disability, their education, occupation, household income, socioeconomic position, partnership status and whether they were parents. We looked at how many people they cared for, and for how many hours in the week. And we also looked at whether they were also doing paid work, and if this was full or part-time.

Nurse visits were used to measure participants’ weight, percentage of body fat and BMI.

Women as carers

Roughly in line with national figures, we found women were more likely to be carers and to put in more hours of care each week. Female carers were more likely than their male counterparts to have children at home and also to be working outside the home – this may be because male carers tend to be older.

When we looked at whether men’s caring was linked to obesity, we did find an association – men who were carers had higher BMIs and larger waists. However, once we had taken differences in age into account we didn’t find this statistically significant.

But when we looked at women, the story was rather different. In contrast to men, women who were carers were significantly more likely to have larger waists or a higher percentage of body fat. And there was a particularly strong effect when it came to women who combined caring with full-time work: amongst young women aged 16-44 who were in full time work, those who were carers had waists 4cm larger, on average, than those who were not carers. Those who were caring and working beyond the age of 65 were also larger, with higher proportions of body fat and bigger waists.

Why is this? Why would women’s health potentially suffer a greater adverse effect than men’s from being a carer? It seems the strains on them may be greater – younger women may be working outside the home and may also be caring for children, for instance. They may lose touch with friends who have more freedom to enjoy leisure time. Carers are likely to have less time to spend exercising or to prepare healthy and nutritious meals – and those combining several caring roles with working life are likely to be particularly hard-hit.

This matters, not least because the scale of the issue is so great – and because the UK relies so heavily on its citizens to look after their own – carers have been estimated to save the UK economy £132 billion per year. We need to make this largely hidden army of unpaid carers a public health priority.

Informal caregiving and markers of adiposity in the UK Household Longitudinal Study is research by Rebecca Lacey, Anne McMunn and Elizabeth Webb of the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London.

Work stress and ill health – what’s the link?

Lots of studies have suggested stress can be a cause of ill health – and that leads to people ceasing to work before they reach retirement age. But most have offered only a snapshot on the issue. Now a new analysis of data from a major panel study by José Ignacio CuitúnCoronado and Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester has shed new light on how work stress can affect an employee’s health over a longer period.

Many animals have the ability to adapt to environmental changes and pressures so that they’re better prepared the next time they happen. Bears can put on fat as winter approaches, for instance, to help them stave off hunger and stay warm.

And human beings can do this too. Stressful situations trigger chemical responses which can help to give us extra resources when things are tough. Our neuroendocrine systems, for instance, trigger hormonal responses which enhance our physical performance when we need it most.

But these valuable systems can have a downside. In our research, we wanted to look at how repeated exposure to stressful situations might contribute to health problems, particularly in people nearing the end of their working lives. We call this stress-induced effect ‘Allostatic Load’ – the wear and tear” on the body that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress because of fluctuating hormonal responses.

Given that many governments are looking for ways to extend working lives, there’s particular interest in finding out how stress can affect the health of older workers.We were able to tap into a rich source of information – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a representative sample of almost 10,000 over50s since 2002.

These participants have been interviewed regularly and one of the things they’ve been asked to report is whether they’ve experienced a sense of imbalance between the effort they put into their jobs and the rewards they get out.

Health testing

This gave us a sample of 2663 older adults, all over 50 and living in England, who’d reported these feelings at least once and who’d been assessed as having had an adverse reaction to them. We wanted to know whether repeated episodes had a bigger effect than just one, and whether the effect would be just as strong for past episodes as it was for more recent ones.

Between 2004-5 and 2014-16 the group were asked about stress at work, but they also underwent physical tests to see how the various systems in their bodies were bearing up.

They were visited by nurses who carried out a battery of tests including taking hair samples to assess levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, carrying out blood pressure checks to provide information on their cardio-vascular systems, white blood cell counts to assess their immune systems and cholesterol checks on their metabolic systems. Participants also had measurements taken of their waist to height ratios – a good indicator of coronary heart disease risk factors.

Overall, we found the more occasions of work-stress a participant had reported, the greater their ‘Allostatic Load’ index – that is, the greater the amount of biological wear and tear. Moreover, the evidence suggests that employees who had experienced stress more recently (towards the end of their working career)had higher levels of health risk when compared to those who had experienced it earlier in their careers.

This suggests there is an association between repeated reports of stress at work and biological stress mechanisms, which in turn could lead to stress-related disorders such as coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes or depression. This also suggests that previous cross-sectional studies which reported small or inconsistent associations may have suffered because they were only measuring one effect at one time.

Work-related stress is one of the reasons for labour market exit – and our findings would suggest that earlier, snapshot studies may have underestimated the true effect of work-related stress on health over a lifetime.

As this is an observational study, it is not possible tomake any causal claims. Also, there may be other factors that we have not taken into account that may explain the association between stress and disease risk. For example, sleep problems may be relevant – though they may also be part of the journey from stress to ill-health.

But equally it is possible that cumulative exposure to work stress is resulting in damage to employees’ physical health, which is then leading to disability and an early exit from the world of work. So, if we want to extend working lives then reducing work-related stress could be one of the keys to achieving that goal.

Allostatic Load and Effort-Reward Imbalance: Associations over the Working-Career, by José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado, Tarani Chandola and Andrew Steptoe, is published in the International Journal of
Environmental Reasearch and Public Health
.