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.