Tag Archives: Occupational health

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.

 

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. José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado and  Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester describe a major new study, which 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 down-side. 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 over-50s 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.

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.

Health testing

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 lives, 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, we cannot make any causal claims. 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 Research 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/

A question of support: working longer and what works

As more of us work for longer, it’s important to recognise the needs of older workers: and that includes the fact that as we age we are more likely to suffer from long-term illnesses. To what extent do our working conditions affect our decisions about whether or not to continue in a job despite having a chronic disease? Maria Fleischmann, research associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, has been asking what might help to prolong working life for older people. Could factors such as having supportive colleagues and managers, or a clear understanding of who does what, make a difference?

There is strong evidence that people with long-term illnesses leave work early. While three quarters of healthy European 50-somethings have jobs, the figure from those with chronic disease is much lower. Among those with one condition such as diabetes or heart disease, the employment level is around 70 per cent – and for those with two or more that drops to around 50 per cent. Conversely, those who are able to stay well are significantly more likely to continue working beyond pensionable age.

As our working lives grow longer, it’s important to acknowledge that older workers with chronic diseases may have different needs from those who are well – they may not be able to work such long hours, for instance.

So, what are the factors that can make a difference? We know, for instance, that people are likely to remain in work for longer if they have a high level of control over their own hours. Shift workers, on the other hand, are more likely both to become unwell and to leave work early.

Deciding to stay on at work

But what about the factors that are harder to see? What about a worker’s sense of his or her own job stability, or of how harmonious the relationships are between co-workers? Does it help if an employee feels he or she generally knows who does what, or how to respond to a given situation? These types of factors – collectively known as ‘psychosocial factors’ – are also believed to affect peoples’ decisions about whether to stay on at work.

We used data from the Whitehall II study, which has been following the lives, work histories and health experiences of just over 10,000 London-based civil servants since the mid-1980s, when they were all aged 35-55. We looked at the participants in mid-life, around 14 years before retirement age, to see how factors such as levels of autonomy and of support from supervisors or co-workers might affect their decisions if they became ill with diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke or malignant cancer.

And we found that while good ‘psycho-social’ working conditions were helpful generally in supporting workers to stay on in their jobs, they didn’t appear to make any extra difference for those who became ill.

The participants in the Whitehall II study were asked questions such as: ‘Do you have to do the same thing over and over again?’ and ‘Do you have a choice in deciding how to do your work?’ They were also asked whether they felt they had good support from colleagues and superiors and how demanding they felt their job was. They were also asked to describe their level of education, their mental health and whether they had a partner who worked.

We were able to use their answers to assess whether these factors made a difference when they developed illnesses later in life.

Chronic illness

We could see that six out of 10 participants left work between the first phase of the study in 1985 and the last one used for this study, in 2007-9. During the same period the proportion suffering from chronic illness had increased from less than two per cent to almost 30 per cent.

So why had they left, and how might those ‘psychosocial’ working conditions have affected those decisions?

Among the whole group of participants, we found clear evidence that those who felt they had reasons to be happy in their work were more likely to stay on. Specifically, those who felt they were using a wide range of job skills – known as skill discretion – and those who felt they had good social support at work were more likely to stay on for longer.

However, we did not find evidence that those ‘psychosocial’ factors would make more of a difference in whether or not a worker stayed on if he or she were chronically unwell. Or rather, good working conditions were equally important for workers both ill and well.

So, we know that good social and psychological conditions at work are likely to be helpful in keeping employees at work as their careers near their end. And we know that chronic illness is a major reason why people leave work early. But from our study, we cannot say that such good working practices will be a particular deciding factor for those who become unwell.

How and why people leave work

There were some interesting factors in our results: first, we were able to look at the different ways in which people left their jobs, and the reasons why they did so. So those who used a wide range of skills had a reduced risk of leaving work earlier through retirement or ill-health, but this was not related to the risk of leaving work earlier through unemployment; while those who had good social support had a reduced risk of leaving earlier through ill health or unemployment, but not so much when we looked at leaving earlier through retirement.

And while previous studies had tended to measure working conditions at the time of leaving, ours looked at those conditions several years beforehand.

There is certainly scope for more detailed research on this issue – and there is plenty of reason for both researchers and policy advisors to continue to focus on how employers can help chronically ill workers to stay in their jobs.

Can favourable psychosocial working conditions in midlife moderate the risk of work exit for chronically ill workers? A 20-year follow-up of the Whitehall II study is research by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Stephen A Stansfeld, Baowen Xue and Jenny Head. It is published in the BMJ Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and is part of the renEWL project on Extended Working Lives.

Could frailty screening help extend our working lives?

The Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, Andy Briggs, has called for one million more older people to be in work by 2022. But to enjoy the benefits of working longer, we need to remain in good health. Professor Keith Palmer from the University of Southampton and colleagues investigated whether signs of frailty in mid-life can predict difficulties in continuing to work later on. Here he outlines their findings and makes the case for developing screening to identify those workers most in need of support.

By 2020 the over-50s will comprise almost one third of the UK’s working age population, and more recent Government policies, including changes to the age at which we can claim our State Pension, have been focused on extending our working lives.

But, according to the Centre for Ageing Better, the single biggest reason for people leaving the workforce before retirement age is health, and nearly half of all people between ages 50 and 64 have a long-term health condition. The charitable foundation has been highlighting the need for more support to allow older people to continue to work.

For people with poor health, previous studies have shown that extending their working lives may not be in their best interests. Our research is the first to measure frailty and symptoms of pre-frailty in people aged 50-65 and determine whether and how it is associated with employment difficulties. The idea was to see if there is a way to identify early those people most likely to find it difficult to continue working.

We used information about more than 8,000 people collected through the Health and Employment After Fifty (HEAF) Study, which involves patients from 24 geographically-dispersed GP practices in England.

They answered a range of questions about whether they suffered from exhaustion, had a slow walking speed, a weak grip (determined by whether they had problems opening new jars), low levels of physical activity and whether they had unintentional weight loss in the past year.

People with more than three of the above symptoms were classed as ‘frail’, while those with one or two symptoms were classed as ‘pre-frail’.

They were also asked employment-related questions: were they currently working and, if not, had their previous job ended for health reasons?

Those in work were asked:

  • their total sickness absence over the past 12 months
  • had they needed to cut down at work because of their health?
  • were they coping with the physical and mental demands of their work?
  • Did they expect to be able to do the same work in two years’ time?
  • Was their job secure?
  • Did their work affect their sleep?

Information about their well-being, including back and other pain, was also collected, and participants’ jobs were classified as higher managerial, intermediate or routine/manual.

Health problems

More than one third of the women, and 27 per cent of the men studied were no longer working. Of these, around one third of both sexes said they had left their job because of a health problem.

Disorders or pain affecting movement, such as bone, joint or nerve problems, and mental illness, were the most common reasons for stopping work.

Many of those still working reported difficulties with their jobs, with between 6 and 7 per cent having taken 20 or more days’ sick leave in the last year. Around one third reported problems coping with work’s physical demands, and 20 per cent said their job was insecure.

Four per cent of the group studied were classed as ‘frail’ and, within this group, more than three-quarters reported low physical activity, weak grip and slow walking speed, with women more likely to report symptoms. Nearly one third of the participants were classed as ‘pre-frail’.

When work situations were taken into account, we found three quarters of those classified as ‘frail’ were no longer working, with 60 per cent of these leaving their job for a health reason. Only a quarter of the ‘non-frail’ participants had stopped working.

The odds of not being in paid work were more than ten times higher for frail compared with non-frail participants, while the likelihood of leaving work for health reasons was higher still (up 30-fold). In frail people who were in work, the odds of prolonged sick leave, cutting down a lot at work and struggling with work’s physical demands were about 11 to 17 times greater than for non-frail workers.

‘Pre-frail’ subjects also had more work problems, although not to the same extent as frail subjects. For example, their odds of health-related job loss were up 3.7-fold, and their odds of having prolonged sick leave or having to cut down a lot at work in the past year were up 2.5 to 3-fold.

Frailty effect

The impact of frailty on not being in work, taking more sick leave, and not coping with work demands was about 2–3 times greater among those from poorer backgrounds. However, we found ‘frailty’ was strongly associated with poor work outcomes even for those in higher managerial positions.

Looking at the frailty symptoms individually, we found most of the work problems to be most strongly linked with slow walking speed. Strong links were also found with poor grip strength and exhaustion.

Our findings showed strong associations between certain symptoms, for example those with slow-walking speed also tended to be exhausted or have a weak grip. Similarly, there were links between weak grip and exhaustion, and slow walking speed and low physical activity.

Strong associations

While our findings need further follow up, assessing the same group of patients over time to confirm the links between different physical symptoms and future work problems, our large sample size has confirmed frailty symptoms are common in people aged 50-65.

As the first study linking frailty and pre-frailty symptoms to work outcomes, we have shown strong associations with worklessness, health-related job loss, sickness absence and not coping at work.

Through further study, these symptoms could be refined to form the basis for simple screening tests for older workers, and spearhead the development of targeted support to improve physical function in those most at risk.

To realise the call of the Government’s older workers’ champion for one million more older people to be in work in five years’ time, identifying those most likely to struggle to remain in the workplace will be crucial.

The Government, NHS and employers will need to heed the call from the Centre for Ageing Better to develop workplace adaptations and age-friendly practices, and extend occupational health support and targeted preventive approaches that help people stay in work and stay well.

Further information

Frailty, prefrailty and employment outcomes in Health and Employment After Fifty (HEAF) Study is research by Keith Palmer, Stefania D’Angelo, Clare Harris, Cathy Linaker, Catharine Gale, Maria Evandrou, Holly Syddall, Cyrus Cooper, Avan Sayer, David Coggon and Karen Walker-Bone of the University of Southampton and Tjeerd van Staa of the University of Manchester. It is published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Photo credit: Roberto Trombetta

Working longer: is it good for your health?

Across Europe we are all living and working longer. Many of us in the UK are working past state pension retirement age. But what sorts of jobs do older workers opt for and why and what does all this mean for our health, especially in the context of changes to the age at which we can collect our state pension?  In this policy presentation from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL, Professor David Blane looks at what these changes mean for our quality of life as we get older and the implications for those working in occupational health.

A full transcription of David Blane’s talk is also available on the ICLS website.

Photo credit: Scott Lewis