Tag Archives: Extending working lives

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 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
.