Tag Archives: Health

Working and caring: the mental health toll of combining paid work and childcare during lockdown

Baowen Xue and Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies  at University College London discuss new research showing  that women spent considerably more time than men undertaking housework and childcare during lockdown and the knock on for working parents’ mental health, particularly that of lone mothers. They explain how the analysis adds further weight to the Women’s Budget Group’s calls for a care-led approach to the recovery and say years of progress towards a more gender equal society will be derailed if nothing is done.  

There can rarely have been a more talked about start of the school year than that of 2020. Much has been said about the setbacks to children’s learning and the challenges that have faced parents juggling homeschooling, childcare, housework and working from home during lockdown. The indications from early research into this were that women were tending to bear the brunt of these extra caring responsibilities and that this was likely to have a detrimental effect on their mental health. Now new analysis of specially collected data from the early months of COVID-19 adds further evidence of this.

Lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a host of challenges for us all, not least an almost immediate increase in unpaid care work such as childcare and housework, particularly for families with young children. Research by a team at the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed that women continued to spend more time than men doing unpaid care work during lockdown

These early findings prompted major concern from a host of gender equality lobby groups and organisations, not least the Women’s Budget Group, who have called on the Government to prioritise and invest more in care provision to help address these inequalities.

Our research using data collected during the early months of lockdown confirms that women spent much more time on housework and childcare than men. Mental health was worse for the man/woman in a couple where he/she was the only one to adapt or reduce work hours for childcare. This suggests that fairness really matters in this context. 

For single mothers, having to change work patterns to juggle their job responsibilities  with childcare and homeschooling, things were even tougher. They exhibited considerably more symptoms of poor mental health and this finding stayed strong even when we accounted for their mental health pre-lockdown. 

COVID19 data

During April and May, a number of participants from the 40,000 household study Understanding Society took part in a special ongoing COVID19 study. As part of that they were asked a range of questions about how much time they spent each week doing housework and childcare/homeschooling. They were also asked whether they had had to adapt working patterns or reduce working hours due to childcare/homeschooling. On top of this they were asked a range of questions to gauge the state of their mental health.

On average, the women in the study spent about 15 hours per week in April and May doing housework compared with men who spent 10 hours. When it came to caring for the children and doing homeschooling, women spent nearly twice as much time on this as men – 20.5 hours per week in April increasing to 22.5 hours in May. For men the figure was 12 hours per week for each month.

Only 12 percent of working fathers reduced work hours due to caring responsibilities compared with 17 percent of working mothers.

Between couples, women undertook 64 percent of housework and 63 percent of childcare. Where parents were in a couple they tended not to reduce their working hours, although where this did occur it was more likely to be the woman than the man who made the adjustment (21 percent compared with 11 percent).

Continued gender inequality

Although this research is still under peer-review, we don’t anticipate the essential figures changing. The essential message from this research about how badly lockdown is affecting working parents, particularly single mothers, will also stay the same. 

Looking after children all day who would ordinarily be at school, with the additional responsibilities of homeschooling and extra cooking, cleaning and juggling the demands of a job in circumstances that are challenging have, for many, likely led to sleepless nights, lack of exercise, loneliness and feelings of being overwhelmed. It will undoubtedly have put a strain on relationships between couples and within families.

With children back at school, the load will have eased for some, but the stresses and worries of lockdown are by no means over. There are numerous reports of schools sending home whole classes of children to quarantine because of reports of or concerns over COVID cases among teachers and pupils alike. As we write this, cases of COVID19 are rising at an alarming rate, the Government has announced further tightening of restrictions and the coming Autumn and Winter months look challenging for everyone.

Even before the pandemic, our research showed that very little progress was being made towards a fairer division of housework and childcare and that women were still doing the lion’s share of cleaning, cooking and caring for the kids. 

Care-led recovery

The Women’s Budget Group, together with a number of other important voices in the gender equality debate, say a care-led recovery is what’s required in order to redistribute unpaid work between men and women more equally. 

At the launch of their recent report on the issue, the Group’s Dirtector, Dr Mary- Ann Stephenson, commented that a care- led recover will ‘ensure we all have time to care, and time free from care. It will allow men to spend more time with their loved ones and remove the burden of unpaid work from women so that it is shared equally amongst a household. Coronavirus has shown us that the economy is not working but for women the economy has never really worked and this pandemic has highlighted the stark impact it is having on women’s mental health. We can no longer continue this way and expect that women will just bear the brunt. We are the economy and it’s time the economy worked for us.’

At a global level, many concerns are being expressed that progress towards a more gender equal world is being hampered by COVID19. Governments everywhere must recognise that the pandemic is derailing hard fought for improvements and that lone mothers, yet again, are suffering most. Action is needed now to to help people get their lives back on track and keep the gender equality train moving forward. 

Gender differences in the impact of unpaid care work on psychological distress during the Covid- 19 lockdown in the UK is a Pre-Print in SOCARXIV by Dr Baowen Xue and Professor Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Lifecourse Centre in the Department of Epidemiology and Health at UCL. 

Older man

Retirement: is it good for your mental health?

Retirement has traditionally been seen as a stressful time, with disruption to routines bringing potential health hazards. Recently this assumption has been challenged – maybe retirement could actually be a relief to many people.  But the evidence so far has been mixed. Now a new study by Maria Fleischmann and colleagues from the renEWL project at UCL suggests there are mental health benefits to retirement – with the biggest gains for those retiring from stressful, unrewarding jobs.  

As working lives get longer and retirement ages rise, policymakers and employers are waking up to financial implications: if employees are less productive or often absent due to ill health as they near retirement, that costs money.

The debate about retirement has centred on whether it’s experienced with a sense of loss or of relief. But could the answer be in the types of jobs people do before they retire? Could that post-retirement dip or boost be dependent on whether those jobs were good, rewarding ones?

Does workers’ mental health in the run-up to retirement, and in the years afterwards, depend to some extent on the type of work they do, and the amount of stress they experience while at work? Surely those who do not enjoy their jobs will benefit more, in mental health terms, from retirement.

Whitehall II Study

We used data from the Whitehall II cohort study, which started in 1985–1988 and which followed more than 10,000 London-based civil servants who were then aged 35-55. They were questioned every two or three years about their working and personal lives, and at some points also had clinical examinations. This long follow-up period allowed us to observe changes in mental health over an exceptionally long period of time.

We looked at a sample of 4,700 people who had retired but who had not been forced to do so for health reasons; who had given information on their work status and who had answered multiple questions on mental health. Two thirds were men.

The participants had been scored on the General Health Questionnaire  mental health scale, which has 30 questions covering depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and social functioning. They had also answered questions on the psychological and social demands of their jobs, their levels of skill and decision-making authority and how well they felt they were supported by colleagues and superiors.

Positive effects of retirement

For most, retirement brought improvements in mental health, especially in the first three years. Our findings showed a pattern in which there was a steep improvement immediately after retirement, with individuals then settling into a more stable phase.

But these improvements were more pronounced in those who retired from jobs with poorer working conditions. This was particularly the case for those who had stressful or alienating jobs. This was also true for those who lacked support from colleagues and who lacked control over decision-making in their working lives.

The mental health benefits of retirement were not strongly affected by the levels of authority people had at work, or by the breadth of skills they used in their jobs – though those with lower-skill jobs generally had worse mental health.

In our analysis we took into account other factors such as social and economic status, general health, health-related behaviour such as drinking and smoking, age at retirement, relationship status and occupational grade.

The average age of retirement was 60.5 years, and more than three quarters of our sample were married or cohabiting. Four out of 10 worked in the highest – administrative – grade and a similar proportion in the middle – professional or executive – grade. One third had left the civil service before retirement.

In general, these were healthy people – just two per cent took depression medication and 83 per cent had no chronic illness. Almost half had never smoked and less than 10 per cent were dependent on alcohol. Just under half had a normal or low body weight, and their psychological and social working conditions were generally good.

Good jobs are key

So, our study once again confirms that workers in “good jobs” have better mental health. Even though those in less good jobs benefit more from retirement with respect to mental health, this does not close the gap between the two groups.

We believe, on the basis of these results, that employers and policymakers can reduce health care costs through changes in the workplace. In short, if workers have good working conditions early in their careers,  they will reap the rewards later on.

Mental Health Before and After Retirement—Assessing the Relevance of Psychosocial Working Conditions: The Whitehall II Prospective Study of British Civil Servants, is research by Maria Fleischmann, Baowen Xue and Jenny Head, and is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences; B Psychol Sci Soc Sci, 2019, Vol. XX, No. XX, 1–11, doi:10.1093/geronb/gbz042

Maria Fleischmann is at the Department of Health Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1105, The Netherlands.

 

Constriction worker

Is temporary employment bad for your health?

How is the health of those in insecure jobs affected by their working lives? Rachel Sumner and colleagues* have discovered some types of work may be just as strongly linked with poor health as unemployment is.

It’s long been acknowledged that there’s a link between unemployment and poor health. A recent Government Green Paper put it starkly:

“People who are unemployed have higher rates of mortality and a lower quality of life. This is an injustice that we must address.”

But is any job really better than no job? Or could some types of employment actually be linked just as strongly to poor health?

We looked at the issue using data from the Understanding Society study, which took blood samples from more than 4500 people aged between 16 and 64 who were either working or unemployed in 2010 and 2011– we excluded those who were retired, homemaking, not working due to incapacity or in education.

Overall, 7.6 per cent of our sample were unemployed. Amongst the employed, 81.8 per cent were permanently employed, 5.3 per cent were temporarily employed and 12.9 per cent were self-employed.

Health indicators

These samples were used to show whether the study participants had raised levels of fibrinogen or C-reactive protein (CRP), both of which are inflammatory markers and are associated with increased risk of heart disease. Healthy lifestyles decrease CRP levels, while obesity, physical inactivity and smoking increase them.

We compared the levels of these markers in those who were unemployed, permanently employed, temporarily employed and self-employed. We took into account a range of individual, social and health factors which might also influence the levels of these markers.

We didn’t find links between employment status and levels of CRP – but we did find links with fibrinogen.

We looked at how the levels of fibrinogen in different types of employee compared with those who were unemployed. And while those in permanent jobs or self-employed had lower levels of this marker, those in temporary work had similar levels to the unemployed.

So, not all types of work are equally beneficial in health terms – and in particular, temporary work would seem to be linked with worse health than other types. Indeed, in health terms we may actually be just as well off being unemployed as we are in an insecure job.

Why does this matter? It matters because less stable types of employment have grown in recent decades, with many workers employed on fixed-term contracts and experiencing uncertain job conditions. This has already been shown to have negative psychological consequences.

And since the recent global recession, which happened just before our data was collected, both unemployment and temporary employment have expanded. The European Union has a higher temporary employment rate than the OECD average  – 14.2 per cent compared with 11.2 per cent in 2016.

Levels of temporary employment in the UK are lower than the EU average – just six per cent in 2017 and four per cent in 2019  – but temporary employment has become more common since the financial crisis, particularly among young people. The rate of young people in the UK going into precarious employment has already resulted in poorer mental health.

Lessons for policymakers

If temporary employment is associated with an increased risk of mortality then earlier research which has simply compared unemployment with employment has not captured the complexities of the situation.

In conclusion, our findings would suggest there is little difference between the health effects of temporary employment and unemployment, using these particular indicators.  And given the continuing rise of precarious modes of employment across developed countries, this has significant implications for public health. Policymakers should encourage employers to expand the use of permanent contracts.

Unemployment, employment precarity, and inflammation, by Rachel C. Sumner, Rachel Bennett, Ann-Marie Creaven and Stephen Gallagher, is published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

Rachel Sumner and Rachel Bennett are based at the School of Natural & Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, United Kingdom; Ann-Marie Creaven and Stephen Gallagher are at the Health Research Institute, Department of Psychology, University of Limerick, Ireland.

Young woman sat by window

Are some types of job bad for your mental health? And how can employers ensure poor mental health does not lead to early retirement?

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.

Global issues

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.

Are universal state pensions discriminating against those in lower-skilled jobs?

With the state pension age likely to rise further in coming years, are policymakers right to link pension eligibility to average life expectancy? In a one-size-fits-all system, which social groups will lose out? Dr Emily Murray and colleagues* used census data to look at who lives longest after leaving work.

In most industrialised countries, the eligibility age for state pensions is being increased. Between 2011 and 2018, the United Kingdom government raised the State Pension Age for women from age 60 to 65, to match that for men, and a further increase to age 67 for both genders is planned by 2028. A further increase to age 68 by 2039 has been mooted.

Yet our state pension system ignores some very basic facts – it doesn’t take into account the wide disparities in health and life expectancy between different social classes. Those in professional occupations can expect to live longer and to enjoy good health for longer than those in manual jobs. For example, the average 50 year-old man in a professional job can expect to enjoy a further 25 years of good health, while a man the same age in a manual occupation can only expect 18: a seven-year difference. That is why lower social class groups are more likely to find themselves on disability benefit.

We wanted to look more closely at these occupational social class differences in the amount of time older adults live after they stop work, and in particular at the extent to which these differences are due to health.

We used the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, a one per cent representative sample of respondents to the English and Welsh censuses since 1971.  For our analysis, we included respondents who were aged 50-75 at the time of the 2001 census and who had stopped work by 2011 – the average age of stopping was 58 for women and 60.2 for men. These workers were born in 1951 or earlier, so men would have been eligible for state pension at 65 and women at 60.

That gave us a sample of 76,485 people, and over the next 10 years we were able to monitor deaths  – by 2011 14.6 per cent of the women and 25.1 per cent of the men had died.

We could see that for both genders, those in lower social classes tended to die younger – professional women lived two years longer than unskilled women, and professional men three years longer than unskilled men.

We estimated professional women in good health would live five years longer than unskilled women in poor health, while for men the gap would be five and a half years.

But despite these longevity gaps, those from lower social groups were facing more years between leaving work and being able to draw their state pensions – because they left work earlier.

We estimated that if two women were 65 in 2001, the woman who had worked in an unskilled occupation would live five years longer after leaving work than the professional woman with good health – because the unskilled woman would have left at a younger age. Two men in the same circumstances would live on average 25.0 and 19.5 years from stopping work to death.

The most likely explanation is that poor health has a greater impact on the ability of manual workers to continue working than it does on non-manual workers.  It is however important to note that associations between social class and post-work years were not entirely explained by health, and we feel more research is needed on this.

Poor health

But the conclusion is clear: our results show that a uniform state pension age disproportionately affects the poorest among us, because on average they must wait longer between stopping work and qualifying for their state pension, at a time when they are likely to be in poor health. This is despite the fact that they are likely to have started work younger and therefore to have worked and paid contributions for just as many years as their better-off peers.

The solution to this inequality is not straightforward. The preferred strategy for UK policymakers is to support individuals to stay in work for longer, and there is evidence that the average age of leaving work exit is increasing.  However, over half of women and two-fifths of men  still fall out of the labour market before state pension age.

Some researchers have suggested that pension ages should directly reflect life expectancy differences.  Alternatively the age requirement could be dropped and pension eligibility could be based solely on the number of years in work.

We believe a two-year earlier pension age may be more appropriate for individuals who work in manual occupations, given that they leave work earlier than professional workers not in good health.  With rises in pension age already in law, and evidence of stalling life expectancy, it is vital that researchers and policy-makers assess how these rises will influence financial security and health for the most vulnerable in society.

Inequalities in time from stopping paid work to death: findings from the ONS Longitudinal Study, 2001 to 2011 is by Emily T Murray,  Ewan Carr, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Baowen Xue, Stephen Stansfeld, Brian Beach and  Nicola Shelton.

*Emily T Murray, Ewan Carr, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Nicola Shelton and Baowen Xue are based at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London.

Ewan Carr is also based at the department of Biostatistics and Health Informatics, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, London.

Stephen Stansfeld is based at Queen Mary University of London, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Centre for Psychiatry, London, EC1M 6BQ, UK

Brian Beach is based at the International Longevity Centre – UK, SW1P 3QB, London, UK.

Does caring for others damage your mental health?

This blog is dedicated to the memory of the paper’s lead author, the luminary Allison Milner, whose recent death has left the world a poorer place.

Health work and caring make up a significant proportion of jobs in high-income countries – but how does the mental health of people in those jobs compare with others? And how does the mental health of those in higher-status medical jobs compare with that of those in lower-skilled and lower-paid caring jobs? Tania King and colleagues* at the University of Melbourne turned to a major Australian longitudinal study for answers.

The health and social care workforce is very diverse, encompassing both those with the highest levels of skill and salary and those with some of the lowest. Yet all those workers have one thing in common: they work primarily in jobs which involve caring for others.

This means the emotional demands of the job are high: these workers often experience threats of or actual violence, for instance, and tend to have low levels of control over their work. This has been shown to lead to burnout, high levels of sickness absence and high job turnover.

We used the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, a nationally representative study which has collected information from more than 13,000 people each year since 2001, to look at three questions:

  • Are job conditions in health and care more stressful than those in other sectors?
  • Do job stressors affect the health of health and care workers more than they affect others?
  • If health and care workers do suffer more than others, is that linked to the type of people who tend to go into that type of work and how they react to stress?

On the first question, we found that overall the working conditions of those in caring and support work jobs – the lower-paid, lower-skilled end of the sector – were worse than those in higher-status medical jobs, with care workers reporting a higher number of stress factors such as high demands, lack of control, job insecurity and perceived unfairness of pay.

Then we looked at workers’ mental health, using a widely recognised scale which assesses respondents’ symptoms of depression and anxiety in the past four weeks, along with more positive feelings such as calmness and happiness.

We found carers and support workers had poorer mental health scores than health workers. They also scored worse when compared to other workers who were not in health, care or other people-facing roles.

Other human service workers, such as hospitality workers, sales staff and personal assistants had worse mental health than those in roles which involved less personal contact. Of the four groups – carers, health workers, human service workers and others – carers had the worst mental health and health workers had the best.

Mental health effects

What were the biggest stress factors for the different groups? We found job insecurity had the greatest effect on all of them. But there were differences, too: In human service jobs, fairness of pay was the second-biggest factor, while in health care professions low control was associated with the second largest decline in mental health.

But we also found differences in the ways in which different groups reacted to stress: When carers and support workers reported three or more different stress factors, that resulted in a three-point decline on the mental health scale when compared to those reporting none. But when health care workers reported three or more stress factors that was associated with a lower, 2.65 point, decline in mental health.

Low-skilled is high-stress?

Our results suggest – perhaps surprisingly, given popular narratives about the stress suffered by senior executives – that lower skilled carers and support workers are more likely to be exposed to stress at work than higher skilled health workers such as doctors and nurses. They also have poorer mental health and a greater adverse reaction to stress.

There is other evidence to show low-income, less-educated workers suffer more from work stress. But our analysis adds another factor – the care workforce we looked at are mainly women with lower incomes and less education than either health workers or our reference group of other workers.

And even when this largely-female, low-status group of carers reports no stress factors at work, its mental health is worse than that of other workers – we found a three-point difference on the mental health scale between carers and either health staff or our reference category of non-health, non-people-facing staff.

Hence, people with lower levels of mental health face an accumulation of health hazards. They are likely to find themselves in stressful jobs which propel them into even worse mental health.

And so to our final question – is the poor mental health of care workers somehow intrinsic to them as people? Our methods enabled us to control for stable (time-invariant) characteristics such as gender, personality or country of birth (called within person effects), as well as things which might change over time, such as age, income and type of employment. The results showed that even after controlling for within person effects, as well as these other factors such as age and income, being exposed to these stress factors had a negative effect on the mental health of care workers.

We concluded that – while it’s important to note that health workers, too, experienced stress and poor mental health – low-quality working environments has a clear effect on the poorer outcomes of carers and support workers.

The impact of these environments does not stop with those who work in them:  this may also have knock-on effects on the quality of care provided. Earlier studieshave shown factors such as anxiety, stress and burnout  among healthcare workers are linked with poorer patient safety, too.

There is a dire need for more investigation into working conditions among health and human service workers. Such research could be critical in informing workplace design, particularly as the number of people employed as health and human service continues to grow. For that workforce to be sustainable, jobs need to be structured to promote health and productivity as well as a high quality of care.

The mental health impacts of health and human service work: Longitudinal evidence about differential exposure and susceptibility using 16 waves of cohort data, by Allison Milner, Tania L. King and Anne Kavanagh, was published in Preventive Medicine Reports, vol 14, June 2019.

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. 

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.