Tag Archives: Health

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.

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
.

Does education and job status affect the length of our working lives?

Who is most at risk of leaving work due to poor health? In a major international research project, Ewan Carr from the renEWL team has worked with colleagues at UCL, King’s College and Queen Mary University of London in the UK, INSERM and Paris Descartes University in France and the University of Turku in Finland to find out more about social inequalities and extended working life. Based on information from nearly 100,000 employees from seven studies in four countries, the research found employees with low levels of education or low occupational grade (e.g. unskilled or manual jobs) to be more likely to leave work for health reasons. While past studies have shown there is socioeconomic inequality in the ways that working lives come to an end, few have compared these trends across different countries.

Across Europe, ageing populations have forced governments to look at ways of extending working lives. As people stay healthier for longer, raising the state pension age has become a priority in a number of countries – in the UK this reform has already been implemented.

But this change is likely to be particularly challenging for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who are known to lose both physical and mental ability more quickly as they age.

Planning for later life

There’s a double-bind here for this group. They’re more likely to be unable, through ill health, to continue to work in later life. But they’re also less likely to have the resources they need to keep them out of poverty in retirement.

People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may have contributed less to their pension funds, and so may have to work even if they don’t want to, or if their health makes it difficult for them to do so.

Meanwhile those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to have bigger pension pots but also to have better health, which allows them to work for longer. They have a further advantage in that they are likely to have jobs they enjoy and which have more security – so they’re less likely to be forced into retirement or unemployment.

We wanted to find out more about this: would similar levels of poor health have a disproportionate effect on those who were less well educated, or who had lower-status jobs? If two people had the same health issues but had different social status, would one be more likely than the other to stay in work for longer?

Other studies have looked at these issues, but they had limitations. They tended to focus on single countries – or in some cases on the Nordic countries as a group – and weren’t necessarily applicable elsewhere. They often used things like disability benefit as a measure of work exit, and again these weren’t always the same from one country to another.

Work exit

Previous studies found people at both ends of the occupational ladder were more likely than those in the middle to extend their working lives, but for different reasons. Put bluntly, those at the top chose to continue working; those at the bottom were forced to do so.

We looked at data from seven independent studies in Finland, France, the UK and the USA. Some of these were drawn from representative samples of the whole population, while others looked at specific groups – for instance, the Whitehall II study in the UK followed a large group of civil servants over several decades. All the studies were based on people who were in paid work at around the age of 50. In total, our study covered almost 100,000 people.

We considered two measures of social status – level of education, and level of occupation. We assessed retirement age and route (i.e. whether it was for health reasons or not) using respondents’ own reports of their retirement as well as company and administrative records and benefits information.

Overall,wefound those with lower levels of education were more likely to leave work for health reasons – this effect could be seen for men in all the studies and for women in most. Lower occupational grades were also strongly linked to leaving work for health reasons.

These findings have important implications for policymakers, who usually calculate retirement age by sex but who don’t take into account factors such as family circumstances or social status. Policies which seek to extend working lives for all are likely to place those with lower socioeconomic status at a disadvantage – especially in countries where the benefits system doesn’t do much to help those who must leave because of ill-health. This study underlines a need both for greater flexibility in polices that extend working life and for greater recognition of the barriers faced by those from less privileged backgrounds.

Further information

Occupational and educational inequalities in exit from employment at older ages: evidence from seven prospective cohortsis research by Ewan Carr, Maria Fleischmann, Marcel Goldberg, Diana Kuh, Emily T Murray, Mai Stafford, Stephen Stansfield, Jussi Vahtera, Bowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Marie Zins and Jenny Head. It was first published in the journalOccupational & Environmental Medicine on March 12, 2018.

The studies used in the research were:

British Household Panel Survey https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/bhps

English Longitudinal Study of Ageing http://www.elsa-project.ac.uk/

1946 National Survey of Health and Development http://www.nshd.mrc.ac.uk/

Whitehall II study http://www.ucl.ac.uk/iehc/research/epidemiology-public-health/research/whitehallII

Finnish Public Sector study, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health https://www.ttl.fi/en/

GAZEL cohort http://www.gazel.inserm.fr/en/

Health and Retirement Study http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu/

Having a family – how might the decision affect the length of your working life?

Across the developed world, people are living longer. In response to this, governments are looking for ways to encourage people to work for longer. In the UK, the State Pension age is being raised and future generations will have little choice but to work. But how will the decisions they made earlier in life – whether and when to have a family – affect their later employment prospects? A new study from the RenEWL project by Dr Mai Stafford and colleagues at UCL and Queen Mary University of London has some answers.

Many of the post-war baby boom generation retired before the State Pension age began to rise. But subsequent generations must plan for longer working lives, and government policy needs to find ways to facilitate that.

We know more people are living longer, and we know that our decisions about having a family can affect the likelihood of us staying in work for longer. But we wanted to get a more nuanced view of how family and working lives can interact.

Would those who delayed starting a family until their thirties be more likely to work into their late sixties? How would those who never had children differ from those who did? And how would the prospects of women who took time out of the workplace be affected by that decision as they neared State Pension age?

We looked at data from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) which has followed the lives of more than 5,000 people born within a single week in 1946. Participants have been studied 24 times during their lives from birth, through childhood and adulthood, and most recently when they were aged 68-69 – at which point more than 2,700 people responded. The men in the study reached state pension age at 65; the women at 60.

We found that almost half the men had been continuously married with children and in full-time work since their early twenties. Women’s lives tended to vary more, with the largest group working full-time until their early twenties then taking time out to raise a family before working part-time and then returning to full-time work in their late thirties.

In their early sixties, just over two thirds of women and a third of men were not in paid work.

Women who did work at this age were more likely to be in part-time work, while men were more likely to be in full-time work. By the age of 68-69, just one in five men and one in 10 women were still in paid work.

 Work and family

Those who became fathers in their early twenties and who had jobs were more likely to be in full-time work at age 60-64 than men who remained single and childless. They were also more likely to be in work at age 68-69 than men who had partners and jobs but no children.

When we looked at how the age at which participants had their children affected their later employment, we found this made no difference for men. But women who had children later were more likely to be in full-time work at age 60-64 than those who had them earlier.

Having children early then returning to full-time work after a break, rather than continuous work through the childrearing years, made no difference to women’s later employment prospects.

We considered whether these differences might be driven by earlier health and socioeconomic circumstances that result in different kinds of family-work patterns. The links between work-family patterns and later life work participation remained when we statistically controlled for childhood health, educational attainment and childhood socioeconomic factors.

Why did the age of family formation make a difference? Women who have their children later may still be providing financial support to them in their sixties – though if so we would expect that men who had children later would also be more likely to be in paid employment, and this was not the case.

Women who became mothers later may also have started working later – possibly because they stayed in education longer – and therefore might have accrued less pension entitlement by age 60-64, though we do not think this fully explains the difference because we controlled for educational attainment.

British baby-boomers

So, what can this cohort of British baby-boomers tell us about how family decisions affect later working lives? We found that the timing of having children was related to women’s but not men’s employment in later life.

Both men and women who remained childless, regardless of whether they had a partner, were less likely to be in paid work in their sixties than those who had children.

And both men and women who worked full-time and neither had children nor a partner were also less likely than their peers to be still in paid work after the age of 60, though women in this group who were still working were more likely than men to be working part-time.

Mothers who returned to work were more likely to be in work in their sixties, while becoming a father made no difference to a man’s prospects.

It’s important for policymakers who have an interest in extending our working lives to consider these results. Mothers, and parents more generally, may stay in the work-force in later life if they have access to jobs which allow them to combine family and work. Our study underlines the need for both part-time jobs and flexible working to be available to parents.

Work–family life course patterns and work participation in later life is research by Mai Stafford, Rebecca Lacey, Emily Murray, Ewan Carr, Maria Fleischmann, Stephen Stansfeld, Baowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Diana Kuh and Anne McMunn and is published in the European Journal of Ageing.