Ahhhh retirement: finally time to relax, enjoy life, unwind and feel less stressed. That is certainly how many people will be expecting or hoping that their retirement will pan out when it happens. But research by Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester and colleagues at UCL and the University of Essex, shows that whilst dreams of a less stressful life in retirement may come true for those in higher status jobs, they are less likely to do so for those in low status occupations. Here he explains the research, which uses innovative methods to see whether retirement really is the stress buster many of us hope it will be.
We have known for some time that people from poorer backgrounds in low status jobs generally have poorer health across their lives and tend to suffer from greater levels of stress. Those health inequalities widen as people get older, but it had been assumed that retirement might see a closing of the gap, because poorer workers have higher levels of work stress, but this appears not to be the case, something that researchers have found hard to explain.
As most countries are now raising retirement age and, with it, the age at which workers can collect their State Pension, it is really important that we understand the impact these policies might have on the health and wellbeing of employees, particularly those in disadvantaged working conditions.
In this research, rather than just making use of self-reported health information from workers, we wanted to get right under their skin to look at what signs of stress there were in their bodies in the run up to and after retirement. We wanted to compare the stress levels of those who had just retired to those still in work and we also wanted to compare the stress levels of workers in high and low grade jobs.
We were able to do this by looking at the changing levels of a stress related hormone called cortisol.
Our information came from The Whitehall Study, which has tracked the working lives of thousands of UK civil servants since the 1980s. As well as being a good fit for the research because of the type of information available, using a longitudinal survey like this enabled us to observe the same people over this important period of in their lives.
We focused on just over 1000 of the study’s participants who were aged around 60 and who, as part of the Study, provided a series of saliva samples across a day. Using these saliva samples, we could measure their changing levels of cortisol over the day. Waking up in the morning results in the release of cortisol, which declines to almost negligible levels by bedtime. The steeper the declines in a person’s cortisol measurement across the day, the less stressed they were. People with relatively higher levels of cortisol at bedtime are more stressed and have a flatter rate of decline of cortisol.
Their employment grade was categorised as ‘high’, middle or ‘low’ according to the civil service banding system.
Civil servants who were employed in the lowest status jobs had the highest levels of stress, whilst those in the highest status jobs were the least stressed. We could also see that, after retirement, when we might have expected biological stress levels to fall for all the workers, this was only the case for those in the top jobs. Lower grade workers who had just retired were just as stressed as their peers who were still working.
Stresses and strains of working life
Worryingly, far from being a time when the stresses and strains of working life melt away, retirement seems to bring little or no relief for those in lower grade occupations. It seems the health inequalities observed between those in high and low grade jobs are magnified not only as workers get older, but even in retirement, when we might think the opposite would occur. In other words, at a time when the gap might be expected to close, in fact it widens.
It’s important to note that we took a wide range of other factors into account when we looked at the lives of the people in the study, including their broader health, whether they had a serious life-limiting illness, whether they were married etc., but our results remained strong, giving us considerable confidence in our findings.
Of course, there can be many different factors at play as we prepare to retire. Workers who retire from low status jobs often face financial and other pressures, whilst their better paid peers enjoy good pensions and have the resources to engage in leisure and social activities.
Another key point to make is that if this is the picture for people working in the civil service, where working conditions are considered very good and certainly a great deal better than most other employment areas, things are likely to be worse in other types of job where working conditions are less favourable.
For those looking to tackle inequality and unfairness in the workplace and wider society, our findings add to a growing body of evidence of how they are magnified across the lifecourse. They serve to remind us also that if we want everyone to enjoy a relaxed, happy and fulfilled retirement, then those inequalities must be addressed early with policies that are based on solid evidence.
Retirement and Socioeconomic Differences in Diurnal Cortisol: Longitudinal Evidence From a Cohort of British Civil Servants is research by Tarani Chandola, Patrick Rouxel, Michael Marmot and Meena Kumari and is published in The Journals of Gerontology: J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci, 2017, Vol. 00, No. 00, 1–10