Tag Archives: Whitehall Study

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

Work and family conflict: who is at risk?

Juggling the demands of work and family can create conflict and this can play out differently for men and women. But what other factors are at play? Do things like the sort of job we do and the levels of control we feel we have at work and at home matter too? It’s a subject of keen interest not just to individuals, but also employers and Government, who are being urged to provide more and better support for working parents. Dr Helena Falkenberg from Stockholm University and a team of colleagues have been investigating and find that these other factors do indeed matter, especially for women in senior level jobs.

Being in a job we enjoy and having a family are sources of great satisfaction, but also of conflicting demands. From organising childcare and sharing the housework to getting that all important report done on time and preparing for a big presentation, being a working parent can be tough at times.

Maybe there’s a special breakfast meeting that means mum or dad can’t take the kids to school or perhaps one of the children is suddenly unwell and decisions need to be taken around which parent will take time off. Work gets in the way of family life and family matters can prevent us getting on with our work.

A recent report from the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) called for a step change in support for working parents from UK Government and employers, claiming initiatives such as Shared Parental Leave and free childcare policies are not hitting the mark, despite being well intentioned.

In this research, rather than looking simply at how and to what extent men and women are conflicted over work and family, we try to pinpoint more clearly other aspects of our lives that might be linked with conflict. In that we way, we can identify more clearly the sorts of individuals at greatest risk which in turn might help employers and policymakers identify and target support at specific groups.

This study investigated the links between gender and socioeconomic status (specifically in this case the type of job people did) and levels of conflict. It also examined how levels of control at home and work increased or reduced conflict.

The findings suggest that if you are a woman or have a higher level job, you are most likely to experience conflict between work and family life. In addition, the less in control you feel at work and at home, the greater that conflict is for both men and women.

Our study highlights the need to make it easier for higher status employees to combine work and family, especially women, and to increase the levels of control at work and at home to help individuals manage work and family successfully.

Civil servant data

We used information from the Whitehall II study of nearly 3,500 British civil servants (2,657 men and 827 women) in the 1990s. They were grouped into three different socioeconomic status levels

  • Senior administrative
  • Executive/professional
  • Clerical/support

Participants in the study were asked whether and to what extent their work interfered with family life. For example did work commitments reduce the amount of time they could spend with the family. Did their job involve a lot of travel away from home and did it make them irritable at home or leave them lacking the energy needed to do home and family related things.

When it came to how family got in the way of work, they were asked if family matters distracted them from getting on with work, prevent them from getting enough sleep to be do their job well and having enough time to themselves.

To dig deeper into the question of how in control they felt at work and at home, they were asked a range of questions including much say they had in decisions at work, how much choice about what they did and how much flexibility there was. For control at home they were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “At home, I feel I have control over what happens in most situations.”

When we took into account factors such as part-time work, whether the individuals were married, had children or other caring responsibilities, women reported more conflict between work and family than men. When we added in to the analysis how much control over work and home life participants felt they had, the difference between men and women was even more pronounced.

Having a more senior position was also a key factor for both sexes, but especially for women. The small number of women at high grades in the civil service and other areas of the labour market appears, to some extent, to reflect the difficulties for women in high positions to combine work and family. Notably in our study sample, more than half of the women with senior level jobs did not have children.

When it came to how family interfered with work, once again women fared worse than men, with women having more than twice the risk of their family life interfering with their work life. Of the women, those in higher positions fared worst of all. The type of job the men did in the study did not make a difference to the levels of interference.

Being in control

Participants who reported low levels of control at work were most likely to say that work interfered with family life, indicating that more control and flexibility at work eases the transition between work and family. There was less of a link between low levels of control at work and those reporting family interference with work. However the interaction between control at work and the influences of socioeconomic status and gender needs further research to draw significant conclusions.

Low levels of control at home also contributed to a markedly higher risk of work-family and family-work conflict. This seemed to be equally important for women and men no matter what their position at work. To develop effective policies on work-family balance, the home sphere will need further research.

One limitation of our study is that it was conducted among white-collar British civil servants, and the findings may differ among other working populations and, particularly, in different countries with different social security systems. Information was also collected some years ago.

However, we found clear evidence that women experienced more interference between work and family and vice versa than men, especially women in senior positions. This is important as it might influence their career choices and their health over time.

We hope this research and further work in this area will help employers and Government to get a more nuanced picture of what factors are at play when it comes to the issues facing working parents, and ultimately develop initiatives and approaches that can reduce the conflict in a way that helps them to thrive at work and at home.

Further information

Do gender and socioeconomic status matter when combining work and family: Could control at work and at home help? Results from the Whitehall II study is research by Helena Falkenberg and Petra Lindfors of Stockholm University, Tarani Chandola of the University of Manchester and the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, and Jenny Head of University College London. It is published in the journal Economic and Industrial Democracy.