Mental illness is a major cause of early retirement – but do those who are forced to leave work early for this reason get better afterwards? What is the relationship between work stress and mental health? A new study of public sector workers in Finland suggests there is a link – and there are important lessons for employers. Tarani Chandola from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies was among the authors of the study.
One way in which we can track the prevalence and level of mental illness is by looking at the use of psychotropic medication – that is, medication which can alter one’s mental state. This group of drugs includes common antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and antipsychotic medication.
If there is a link between work stress and mental illness, then we should expect those forced to leave work for this reason to get better after retirement. So by tracking the levels of psychotropic medication among a group of workers before and after retirement, we could find out the extent to which there was such a link.
We were able to use data from a long-term study of Finnish public sector workers to examine the issue more closely.
It matters because previous studies have shown an increase in the use of this group of drugs among all those who take disability retirement, particularly those whose retirement was due to mental ill health. Those from higher social classes saw the biggest drop in medication use after retirement, suggesting there are social factors at play here, too.
The effect does seem to vary around the globe, though – some studies from Asia found an increase, rather than a decrease, in mental health problems after leaving work. But in Europe, retirement has often been found to be followed by an improvement in both mental and physical health. Retirees have reported sleeping better, feeling less tired and generally feeling a greater sense of wellbeing.
We were able to use data from the Finnish Public Sector study cohort study, which followed all employees working in one of 10 towns and six hospital districts between 1991 and 2005. The study included participants from a wide range of occupations including administrative staff, cleaners, cleaners and doctors, and they were followed up at four-year intervals regardless of whether they were still in the same jobs. Their survey responses were linked to a register of medication purchases for at least two years before retirement and two years after.
We had information on 2,766 participants who took retirement because of disability. Uniquely, the data included both participants’ use of medication and their perceived levels of work stress. So we were able to ask whether there were differences in this pre and post-retirement effect between those in low and high-stress jobs.
Specifically, we looked at something called effort-reward imbalance – that is, when workers put in too much effort at work but get few rewards in compensation: according to a recent review, this carries an increased risk of depressive illness.
If our theories were correct, we would see a decline in the use of psychotropic medication after disability retirement, and it would be greatest among those with high levels of effort-reward imbalance. Along with mental illness the other major cause of disability retirement in Finland is musculoskeletal disease, so we categorised our sample in three groups – mental illness, musculoskeletal disease and ‘other.’ Eight out of 10 in the sample were women, and three out of 10 reported high effort-reward imbalance before retirement.
Unsurprisingly, those who retired due to a mental disorder had the greatest increase in psychotropic drug use before retirement. And those who were in high-stress, low-reward jobs had higher levels of medication use than those who were not. But after retirement, there was no difference in psychotropic drug use between those with high vs low effort-reward imbalance. It looked as though stopping work in high stress jobs reduced the need for higher psychotropic medication use among those workers who exited the labour market for mental health reasons.
Retirement because of musculoskeletal disease or other causes was not associated with any similar link between stress level and psychotropic medication.
Lessons for employers
Our study showed that among people retiring due to mental disorders, those in high-stress, low-reward jobs benefited most from retirement. So it’s likely that they could benefit from the alleviation of work-related stress before retirement, too.
In conclusion, if employers could find ways of reducing the levels of stress suffered by employees suffering from mental ill-health, their early exit from paid employment might be prevented and their working lives might be extended.
Psychotropic medication before and after disability retirement by pre-retirement perceived work-related stress was published in the European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 0, No. 0, 1–6.
The other authors were Jaana Halonen, Taina Leinonen, Ville Aalto, Tuula Oksanen, Mika Kivimäki and Tea Lallukka of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health; Hugo Westerlund and Marianna Virtanen of the Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University; Martin Hyde of the Centre for Innovative Ageing, Swansea University; Jaana Pentti, Sari Stenholm and Jussi Vahtera of the Department of Public Health, University of Turku; Minna Mänty of the Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki; Mikko Laaksonen of the Research Department, Finnish Center for Pension.
These authors also have the following additional affiliations: Jaana Halonen; Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University; Jaana Pentti; Department of Public Health, University of Turku; Minna Mänty; Statistics and Research, City of Vantaa, Finland; Mika Kivimäki, Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki and Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London; Marianna Virtanen, School of Educational Sciences and Psychology, University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu; Tea Lallukka, Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki.