Tag Archives: Stress

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.

Never too early to intervene to get us working longer

Working for longer is something we are all having to get our heads around. It’s certainly a priority for the Government, which wants to encourage more older people into satisfying jobs that will help them stay happy and healthy as they age. For older people already in good jobs that they enjoy, who have been fit and active for most or all their life, this could be a great opportunity for them and their families. Of course that’s not the case for everyone. Dr Charlotte Clark has been looking at what having poor mental health as a child could mean for our working life in our mid fifties. Here she explains why policy makers and businesses need to pay close attention to the mental wellbeing of the nation if they want to extend people’s working lives successfully.

Working beyond traditional retirement age has been the focus of much attention in recent years as policy makers, businesses and working people across the UK get used to the idea that more of us need to work for longer to take account of the fact that more and more of us are living longer and that this reality comes at a cost.

As things stand, by their mid fifties, many people are not in work because of early retirement, long-term sickness or disability, being or becoming unemployed or because they are long term homemakers. So the onus for working longer tends to fall on those who stay employed through all or most of their lives. But could more be done to encourage and support those most likely not to be working at 55 to do so and then to continue to do so?

Looking right across people’s lives to track what may have influenced a person to leave or not be working at 55 provides us with a much clearer and more nuanced picture than a simple snapshot in time. We wanted to see whether having poor mental health as a child or as an adult might be an important part of that picture and give us some ideas for interventions that could extend the working lives of this group of people in a way that would benefit them and society more widely.

Increasing psychological support

It’s fair to say that the Government’s ambitions to get more people working for longer have been laid out quite clearly already, as has their commitment to putting people’s physical and mental health on an equal footing. Saying that, their commitment has been called into question recently in a report from The King’s Fund, which says parity is a long way off.

When it comes to specific groups not working, the Department for Work and Pensions has tended to focus its attention on benefit claimants rather than other groups who, for one reason or another may choose not to work – housewives and husbands for example.

Government initiatives to try to help people with mental health problems find work have included the ‘Improving Access to Psychosocial Therapies’ (IAPT) programme, which has increased provision of therapies for benefit claimants with depressive and anxiety disorders.

Evaluations of IAPT suggest that ‘Nationally, of [adult] people that finished a course of treatment in IAPT, 45% recover. . . and a further 16% show reliable improvement’. Encouraging results that have led to modest increases in employment, and it’s hoped there will be more positive news on this front.

However, things don’t look quite so encouraging when it comes to younger people with mental health problems and that’s what our research is shining a spotlight on. It’s also an area we believe should be a focus for policy makers and those working with young people including parents and schools. After all, successfully extending people’s working lives can only be done once they successfully enter and then remain in employment. This is less likely for youngsters with poor mental health.

55-year survey

We used information from the National Child Development Study which has followed the lives of thousands of people born in 1958, and collected detailed information about their lives and circumstances.

This included their employment situation and, first and foremost, we were able to see that, at age 55, nearly 19 per cent of the 9,000 participants in the study were not working: 2.8 per cent were unemployed, 5.2 per cent were permanently sick, 3.3 per cent were retired and 7.5 per cent were homemaker/other.

From a very young age, the study also collected information on whether the individuals in the study exhibited signs of depression or worry, whether they were hostile, disobedient or aggressive.

Even when we took account of a wide range of other things such as whether they suffered poor mental health as young or older adults, numbers of other children in the household, whether their partner was employed, qualifications etc. the association with problems as a child were still really strong.

Drilling down into whether those mental health issues were ‘internalized’ or ‘externalized’, we were able to see that those who were depressed or anxious as children were about one and a half times more likely to be unemployed or permanently sick as their peers without problems.

It was a similar story for those who had shown externalised signs such as aggression. They were more than twice as likely to be unemployed or permanently sick, and also more likely to fall into the homemakers/other category too.

Interestingly there was no strong link between poor mental health in childhood and taking early retirement or being employed part-time.

Children’s mental health

Of course there is a lot more at play in children’s lives than we have taken account of in this study. Nevertheless, it is clear from our research that addressing the mental health problems of the very youngest in society could and should be an area for focus and schools, together with parents and those with a responsibility for the wellbeing of young children have key roles to play here.

It seems it is never too early to intervene proactively to try to help young people get and stay on a healthy happy path that will lead to them a productive and satisfying working life that extends well beyond the age of 55. Equally, given that people identifying themselves as ‘homemakers’ rather than unemployed are the largest group not working at age 55, policy makers could consider ways to get this economically inactive group into the workplace, in tandem with its efforts to support the mental health of those people on benefits.

There is also a message here for policy makers about just how important it is to make those promises about parity of esteem between mental and physical health a reality sooner rather than later.

Impact of childhood and adulthood psychological health on labour force participation and exit in later life is research by Charlotte Clark and colleagues and is published in Psychological Medicine. The research is part of the ESRC funded Research on Extended Working Lives (RenEWL) programme at UCL.

 

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.

Unretirement: can it be a positive story for all?

“When I was sitting around at home I would just get grumpy. I’ve also lost five stone since working here. This is like a vitality camp for me.” Retired British Transport Police inspector Brendan McCambridge, 56, interviewed in The Telegraph, describes how his new role at Waitrose has improved his life. He is one of the one in four retired British people who return to paid work, a phenomenon called “unretirement”. New research, led by Dr Loretta G. Platts from Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute, explores who ends up unretiring. In this blog post, she considers the implications for individuals, business and policy of retired older people returning to paid work.

Retirement can be an abrupt and one-way change marking the end of paid work and the start of a time of leisure. But people’s lives often don’t look like this. People may gradually retire over a period of time, or even unretire, returning to paid work after retiring. We found that around one in four retirees in the UK returns to paid work, mostly within five years of retiring.

Our information came from the longitudinal Understanding Society data and its predecessor the British Household Panel Survey. We followed more than 2000 50–69-year-olds through the 1990s and 2000s. Participants were defined as unretiring if they reported retiring and later returned to paid employment, or began full-time work following a period of semi-retirement.

While all sorts of people unretire, men are more likely to unretire than women, as are people in good health and those with post-16 qualifications. Unretirees are also more likely to have a partner in paid work. After ten years, a retiree’s chances of taking up paid work are low.

What motivates unretirement?

Unretirement was a positive experience for Brendan McCambridge. Having a job helps to stay mentally and physically active, provides a meaningful activity, and unretirees often appreciate the social side of paid work. Some may appreciate the extra money earned which supplements a pension and provides funds for little extras. For others, earning money is an important part of the decision to unretire.

Our findings suggest that financial factors play a role in the decision to return to paid work. Retirees paying off a mortgage are more likely to unretire than those who already own their home outright. Unretirees may wish to prepare financially for retirement or to supplement a pension. With a basic state pension of £122.30 per week for people who retired before 6th April 2016, some people may have found a new job because they could not afford to retire.

Former Pensions Minister Steve Webb, now director of policy at Royal London, contends that some retirees may have little other option than to get a job. In an interview for People Management, Webb noted that although many of those heading back to work after retirement do so because they “miss the stimulation and social contact”, there is a “real danger” that a whole generation of people will be unable to retire in the first place because they have not managed to save a big enough pension pot.

He says: “If employers do not address this issue they could find themselves with an unhappy older workforce that does not want to work but cannot afford to stop.”

Why retire and then unretire?

Some people may unretire as a result of finding out that they like being retired a lot less than they thought they would. Researchers call this a “retirement shock”, in which recent retirees, just like Brendan McCambridge, discover that they do not like their new lifestyle.

Others may have known all along that they wanted to remain in paid work, but were unable to. More than one million people over 50 are out of work for reasons beyond their control and would like to be in paid work if the appropriate opportunities were available. Some people may be forced out of work directly or indirectly as a result of age-based stereotypes, in particular through not being offered training programmes to learn new skills, or from their updated skills being undervalued.

In their second Missing Million report, Business in the Community has argued that far too many older people are being denied the chance to enjoy meaningful employment in later life and calls for stronger age discrimination legislation to tackle this.

Employers of older people also often deny them the flexibility they require to stay in paid work. Workers aged between 50 and 69 years are more likely than other age groups to want to work fewer hours than they currently do, even if this were for less pay. Around 8 per cent of workers in their 50s are working more than 45 hours per week while also being in ill health. Such older workers, locked into working long hours, may retire from jobs because they do not offer sufficient flexibility of working times.

Retirees may then take a more suitable job if it comes up, or negotiate more suitable working times later on if their former employer asks them to come back. Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the Chartered Institute for Professional Development believes that simple adjustments to working times or job roles could be the key to employers attracting and retaining a “significant talent pool” of older workers who can contribute to the success of the organisation.

Does everybody get to unretire if they want to?

While people in financial straits may be wanting to unretire, we found they did not necessarily manage to. People who were struggling to make ends meet were not more likely to unretire than people in a more comfortable financial situation.

Similarly, those who had lower earnings before retirement were not more likely to unretire. The reason is probably that it is harder for people in a precarious financial situation to find a suitable or good quality job.

These findings are worrying in terms of the broader picture of inequalities in later life. If those retirees who most need to supplement their incomes in later life are not able to find suitable paid work, unretirement may be part of processes that increase inequalities in income between older people.

The findings are also worrying in the context of skills shortages currently faced by British industry, which are predicted to be exacerbated over the coming years. By 2022, the skills gap is expected to reach 7.5 million vacancies. Government and business should not forget about the experience and skills of recently retired workers who are often ready and keen to be re-engaged in the workforce. These workers may need more support and legislation to protect and promote their rights to work more flexibly to take into account their preferences and also the fact that they may be caring for grandchildren and other family members.

Specifically, the government could improve flexible working legislation by providing employees with the right to request flexible working from the start of the job application process, rather than waiting 26 weeks from the beginning of employment. Since older employees are less likely to be offered training, and are less likely to take it up, employers could monitor access to training and development by age as well as proactively offering training to employees and being open to additional training requests.

Where older people manage to find new jobs, it is a result of their own efforts and networks, and not because they accessed effective support. Older people reported in focus groups that Job Centres in particular provided poor guidance and assistance. Government could consider how to develop age-appropriate support services and guidance in Job Centres. Both government and employers could offer mid-life career reviews.

In the long term, we need to work towards a society in which unretirement becomes a positive story for all. Business and wider society stand to benefit from the ambition, experience and skills older people bring to the labour market. For financial and other reasons, many older people want to be in paid work. Currently, they are all too often left out.

Returns to work after retirement: a prospective study of unretirement in the United Kingdom is research by Loretta Platts, Laurie Corna, Diana Worts and Peggy McDonough and is published in Ageing and Society.

Photo credit: Scott Lewis

Out of work and overweight: Think again.

There’s a widely held preconception that people who are out of work are overweight, perpetuated by the media and, indeed, reinforced by some academic studies. But recent robust evidence throws a whole new light on things and indicates that unemployed people are in fact much more likely to be underweight, and less likely to be overweight, than their peers who have not recently been unemployed. Amanda Hughes from the Institute for Social and Economic Research explains how she came to question narratives about benefit claimants being lazy and overweight and go on to undertake research she believes provides a more accurate picture.

While I was doing my PhD, I volunteered at a foodbank, and noticed that there were more people coming in who were painfully thin than too heavy. Some had not eaten that day or the day before. Others had walked for two hours to get there, because paying for a return bus journey was out of the question.

Of course, not all people who are out of work turn to food banks, and not all people who turn to foodbanks are unemployed. But that experience got me thinking: have researchers and public health officials been so concerned with obesity that they have missed a crucial part of the story? If weight loss or weight gain can occur during unemployment depending on personal circumstances, might there be an overlooked ‘U-shaped’ association of unemployment and body weight, with excess obesity and excess underweight among jobseekers?

We know that risk of dying is higher for jobseekers than for employed peers, and it is often assumed that increased overweight and obesity among jobseekers plays a role. But studies on the relationship of unemployment and body weight have been inconclusive; some document weight gain with unemployment, but others suggest weight loss. However, previous studies have compared only average effects – average change in body weight following job loss, or average differences between unemployed people and controls, and may have missed a more complicated ‘U-shaped’ association.

Working age BMI

Using Understanding Society, a longitudinal, nationally representative survey of more than 40,000 UK households, my colleague Meena Kumari and I were able to look at the BMI (body mass index) of 10,737 working-age adults between 2010 and 2012.

What was different about our study, was that we did not assume unemployment would impact BMI in the same direction for everyone. Rather, we allowed for a simultaneously raised risk among jobseekers of both underweight and obesity, by comparing the probabilities of being underweight, overweight, and obese between current jobseekers, recent jobseekers, and people who had not been unemployed since the start of the survey (the control group). To isolate the impact of unemployment itself, we took into account other factors such as demographics, chronic health conditions and mental health, smoking and physical activity.

A small proportion (0.7 per cent) of the people in our study who were employed were classed as underweight (i.e. had a BMI below 18.5). But for those in our sample who were unemployed, the proportion shot up to almost 4 per cent. This pattern remained when we took into account factors such as their education, gender, smoking, overall health, physical activity and alcohol consumption.

Certain groups were especially at risk: there were more extreme effects for longer-term unemployed people, for men, and people from lower-income households, suggesting household reserves or the support of family members may act as a sort of buffer against weight-loss effects. At the same time, currently unemployed people were much less likely to be overweight than peers who had not recently been unemployed (29 per cent v 40 per cent).

We did find that unemployed people were more likely to be obese, perhaps suggesting changes in dietary quality following unemployment towards energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods. However, this was only the case for non-smokers, which might reflect competing priorities between tobacco, food and other essentials for smokers on severely restricted budgets.

Quantitative evidence

Together, these results point to a complex picture in which jobseekers, depending on the complexities of individual lives, are at increased risk of both underweight and obesity, each with their own associated health risks.

The elevated underweight and reduced overweight among current jobseekers are quantitative evidence that many unemployed people are not eating enough in simple caloric terms. Despite the political importance of this question, evidence of this effect has so far been fairly anecdotal.

Our results make an important contribution to research trying to explain the increased risk of chronic illness and mortality for unemployed people – suggesting that, at least in contemporary Britain, being underweight may contribute to that much more than previously realised.

At the very least, I hope our evidence will be used to challenge preconceptions and debunk myths about unemployment. It has implications for the way politicians, journalists and the wider public perceive unemployment, and for anyone concerned with the health effects of being out of work.

Unemployment, underweight and obesity: Findings from Understanding Society is research by Amanda Hughes and Meena Kumari at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, and published in the journal Preventive Health.

You can also read an article about this research in The Guardian.

Photo credit: At Work in the Capital Area Foodbank Warehouse, Geoff Livingston

Having any job at all is better than being unemployed, right?

“Bad work just doesn’t fit in 2017!” Those are the words of Matthew Taylor, head of the Government’s recent review of modern work practices, who has called on politicians to make “all work good.” In an interview with the BBC, Mr Taylor, said that, as well as being bad for productivity and the economy, poor quality jobs were bad for people’s health and well-being. Recent research from Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester has added further weight to those claims, finding that unemployed people who move into poor quality work have worse health than their peers who remain out of work. He explains more about the research findings and how they challenge the idea that having any job is good for your health.

There is considerable evidence to show that being out of work isn’t good for our health and that being in work can bring us a range of benefits, not just financial. It follows, then, that a move out of unemployment and into work is likely to be good for us, but does that hold true if the job we go into is a bad one?

Using rich social, economic and health data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), our research examined the stress levels of a group of unemployed people aged 30-75, some of whom moved into poor quality jobs, some into good jobs and some who remained unemployed.

We also looked to see if any other factors, including their health at the outset of our study, had any bearing on the likelihood of them moving into a poor or good quality job.

Twelve biomarkers

As well as physical measurements such as height, weight and blood pressure, and self-reported information on their physical and mental health, some participants in the study gave blood samples. These could be tested for a range of markers, high levels of which might indicate diabetes, heart or kidney disease, acute or chronic stress. In total, we had 12 separate biomarkers, providing us with a comprehensive picture of participants’ health and an overall measurement of their stress, something referred to as their allostatic load.

How much people earned, how secure their job was and their working environment were all considered, in order to get a sense of the quality of their employment. Participants were asked how satisfied they were at work, how anxious or worried they felt about their job, how much control they had at work and whether they thought they might lose their job in the coming 12 months.

The people studied were divided into four groups:

  • Remained unemployed
  • Employed in a good quality job
  • Employed in a job with one poor quality measure
  • Employed with at least two poor quality measures

Stress levels

When we looked at the stress levels of the different groups, a clear pattern emerged. Unsurprisingly, people who moved out of unemployment and into a good job had the lowest levels of stress. People who went from being unemployed to working in a bad job (with more than two poor quality job measures) had the highest stress levels. These were 1.5 times higher than for those people who remained unemployed.

We took into consideration a host of other factors that might have had some role in propelling an unemployed person into a good or bad job, but even when we looked at their health at the outset of the study, this did not really play a role, other than to note that the people in better health moved into both good and bad jobs. In other words it wasn’t simply that people already in poor health were moving into the worse jobs.

Although numbers for this research were relatively small, the methods and analysis were extremely robust and we can, with some confidence, challenge the widespread belief that any employment, even poor quality work, is better for our health and wellbeing than being unemployed.

The findings serve to illuminate research published by the RSA and Populus recently, showing that three out of four people think we should do more as a country to improve the quality of work. Even more telling was the contrast between the over two thirds who think we can make all work fair and decent, and the less than one in ten who think this is already the case.

Making good work matter

Mr Taylor makes the case that “good work matters” and the RSA’s social media campaign #GoodWorkIs is a laudable effort to engage the wider public in a discussion about what good work looks like.

However, he, like many others, has said that the “worst work status for health is unemployment”. Our research shows that’s not necessarily the case, and our findings, together with more research in this area, should be considered carefully as strategies are hopefully developed to make his call to “make all work good” a reality not a pipedream, especially in the current political climate.

Re-employment, job quality, health and allostatic load biomarkers: Prospective evidence from the UK Household Longitudinal Study is research by Tarani Chandola and Nan Zhang and is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

 

Why retirement might not be as stress-free as you hoped!

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.

Whitehall Study

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

Organisational change: impact on early retirement

Motivating older employees to stay working longer is seen as a key way of tackling the current pensions crisis facing many countries. Something of a fly in the ointment for those looking to address the problem is the option to take voluntary early retirement, especially where among those who are in good health and best placed to continue working. Dr Nina Breinegaard and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen have been researching the situation in Denmark and, as Nina explains here, they find that a key area of focus for employers and policymakers could be organisational change.

A whole host of things influence our decision around when to retire. These include obvious things like our finances, the state of our physical and mental health and what’s going on with our family and close friends.

Another key influence is what is happening in the workplace. A job may have become too physically demanding for example. A number of studies have shown that when a company is restructuring or downsizing, employees may feel less secure about their position. This in turn can be a catalyst for early retirement, sometimes on the grounds of ill health.

In our research, however, we wanted to try to get to the bottom of how organisational change might influence those without any health problems to retire early. We also wanted to take a close look at the combined influences of the psychological and social sides of work on that decision.

Claiming benefits

In Denmark, men and women who have paid into an early retirement benefits insurance fund can claim those benefits between the ages of 60-64 even if they are in good health. At the end of 2012, 34 per cent of women and 27 per cent of men aged 60-64 received these early retirement benefits.

We linked Denmark’s DREAM database, which collects information on all public benefit payments, with a survey collected over a two month period in 2011 from more than 28,000 public sector workers. This enabled us to look at which employees decided to take early retirement benefits and whether changes at work were linked to that decision.

All this information was then linked to administrative data to take a range of social and economic background factors into account.

We ended up with a group of 3254 employees aged 60-64 who were entitled to early retirement benefits. Details of any changes at their workplace: a change of manager, a merging or demerging of departments or workgroups, moving to a different office or having a new base, were collected independently from current or previous managers.

They also rated the quality of their work environment e.g. how good their managers were at leading, how positive relationships were with other colleagues and how fairly and well concerns and conflicts were dealt with (organisational justice). The answers to all these questions were then used to create overall scores for each employee’s work environment.

Follow-up

When we followed up with our survey participants, we found that one in five women and one in seven men had taken early retirement benefits with early retirement being common in all occupational groups except for doctors and dentists.

65.1 per cent of the 2206 employees for whom we had information about all types of organisational change had experienced one or more changes. Change was most frequent among social and healthcare workers (74.9 per cent) and least frequent among laboratory technicians (46 per cent).

Employees whose workplace had undergone a change of management or a merger were much more likely to have taken early retirement than those who had not. After taking background factors including age, marital status, gender etc. into account where a change in management had occurred, the likelihood of early retirement increased even more. Adjusting for the same factors for those whose workplace had experienced a merger made no difference to the likelihood of early retirement.

Relocation was linked somewhat less closely to early retirement and the demerging of departments or workgroups had no effect at all.

On their own, poor quality work relationships and networks and low levels of organisational justice were also associated with early retirement. How well people felt they were managed had an effect only once background factors (apart from age) were taken into account. When any organisational change was factored in as well as the quality of the work environment variables, the likelihood of an employee retiring early increased further.

Organisational change matters

Taking everything into account, we can say, for the first time, and with considerable confidence, that when it comes to early retirement, organisational change makes a difference, particularly where it involves a change of management. Organisational changes on top of a work environment that is perceived to be poor compounds the likelihood of an employee retiring early.

Given that our research focuses on people who are not retiring because of poor health or disability – the very employees that organisations and policy makers want to encourage to work for longer – our findings are likely to be of considerable interest.

Key would seem to be careful consideration of the impacts of any restructuring within a business or organisation. Improving the workplace environment could also have a role in reducing the numbers of employees calling time on work before the age of 65.

The frequent occurrence of organisational change in the Danish healthcare sector is interesting in the light of medical doctors, nurses and other health and social care workers recently being identified as shortage occupations in Denmark. Managing those changes and improving the working environments of people working in these occupations could be a priority, not least because ageing populations not just in Denmark, but the world over, clearly need these groups of workers more than ever before.

Organizational change, psychosocial work environment, and non-disability early retirement: a prospective study among senior public employees
 is research by Nina Breinegaard, JH Jensen and JP Bonde and is published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health.

Photo credit: Workers, Justin Lynham

Who works post State Pension Age?

Across Europe and indeed other parts of the world, we’re being told we need to work longer than in the past. The reason? We’re all living longer and pension systems everywhere are collapsing under the strain. But with age can come poorer health and reduced physical capabilities and what if doing our job is physically or mentally demanding? Raising the State Pension Age for this group of workers compared say with someone working in a less stressful job could end up creating pressure on specific disadvantaged groups, whilst favouring already advantaged groups. Morten Wahrendorf from the University of Dusseldorf and ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies has been investigating.

A number of Governments across Europe have already increased the state pension age beyond 65 and are actively looking to introduce incentives and measures that they hope will get more people of working age to retire later.

Quite a lot of research has looked at what things are going on in people’s lives that might lead them to retire early from work, but far fewer questions have been asked about what might lead to someone working beyond state pension age. What sorts of jobs do they tend to do? What are their working conditions like? How do those compare with people who retire earlier?

It’s important to get a grasp of this if we are to ensure that any changes made to the pension system are fair and just and that they don’t adversely affect specific or already disadvantaged groups.

Using information on nearly 18,000 men and women aged 65 and over from 16 European countries we were able to look into this in some depth and effectively compare prior working conditions of those people who retired early with current conditions of those who worked longer.

Work and conditions

Our information came from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). We looked at whether the participants were employed or not, their job (at the time of the survey and immediately before retiring), how long they had been doing their job, working hours and how stressful their job was.

In addition we looked at what the participants said about how much freedom they had at work, whether there were opportunities to develop new skills, whether their job was physically demanding or time-pressured and how supported and recognised they felt at work.

As far as survey participants’ health was concerned, we were able to see how they rated their own health, whether they were depressed, their quality of life, and how mentally and physically capable they were.

Workers better-off and better-educated

Of everyone we looked at in the study, 755 (4.3 per cent) were still working between the ages of 65 and 80. They tended, on average, to be better off and better-educated than those who had retired.

Those still working were three times as likely to be self-employed as our retired group, who were also less likely to have been in a managerial or professional job before retiring.

Those who had retired reported higher levels of stress in their last job, particularly when it came to how valued and supported they felt. They also had poorer health across the board on all the measures we looked at.

Figure 1. Prevalence of poor health by labour market situation among older men and women (aged 65 to 80 years) in percentage (n=17625

ICLS-health

These findings were still seen even after accounting for a host of other factors including their sex, education, whether or not they were in a relationship, if they had children and how well off they were, and also country affiliation.

There is robust evidence here that across Europe people who are likely to work longer are those who are self-employed or in a good job where they are in control and feel well supported and valued. They are also in better physical and mental shape than their retired counterparts.

Raising the State Pension Age or offering tax incentives to people to work longer may well favour certain groups who are already doing better than their peers in a number of ways. It could also place increased pressure on people already in poor health and in poor quality jobs.

All this needs to be taken into account by Governments looking to plug the pensions gap and by employers who will need to provide good jobs in a better, less stressful working environment if their workers are to remain productive post 65.

Further information

Photo credit: Fish, nico_enders