Tag Archives: Employment

Unsocial working hours: are these compatible for parents and families?

A recently-launched Parliamentary inquiry is asking if policy needs to be changed to deal with the personal impact of night time or shift work. So how do unsocial working hours affect parents? Afshin Zilanawala from the University of Southampton and Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at University College London discuss research which finds shift work that working non standard schedules (nights, evenings, weekends) can impact negatively on fathers’ mental health – though it also enables them to spend more time parenting.

Five years ago, the Taylor Review of Working Practices named work-life balance as one of the key foundations of quality work. It also highlighted the benefits of flexible working and said this enabled people to agree working patterns to fit in with family life and other caring commitments.

Now the Parliamentary  Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has launched an inquiry into the UK’s labour market – and five years on from the review, it will ask what the Government should be doing to address issues raised in its report: “Are there particular types of work, for example night-time or shift work, which warrant further consideration in respect of the impact of that work on workers?” 

We think the research we’ve undertaken as part of a wide-ranging project looking at the health implications of shift work for parents and children can help answer this. Why should we care about unsocial working hours [or fill in the blank term you decide to use? In the last half century, global economies have faced remarkable transformations to their labor markets, such as demand for services during non daytime hours and an increase in the service sector. These changes mean more parents are working a nonstandard schedule (i.e., outside 8 a.m.-6 p.m. hours) and such work schedules could have important implications for parents and their children and their family life. 

Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which is following nearly 19,000 children born in the UK in the early 2000s, we looked at the issue from two angles: first, how do unsocial hours affect parents’ mental health and their relationships with their partners/spouses? And second, do fathers parent their children differently if they work evenings, nights or weekends? 

First, we wanted to get a better handle on whether parents’ mental health and relationship happiness are somehow linked with their experiences of unsocial working hours. Our aim here was to bring fresh understanding to the role of the 24/7 economy in the lives of working families.

We were able to access data gathered over a number of years from MCS participants on the relationship happiness of around 11,500 mothers and fathers. There was also information on the mental health of 12,600 mothers and 11,600 fathers.

Self-assessed wellbeing

Mothers and fathers were asked to self-assess their wellbeing using a set of nine questions covering emotional disturbance and associated physical symptoms. Couples reported on their relationship happiness using a score from 0 – very unhappy – to 6 – very happy.

Parents who reported being in paid work were asked if they regularly worked evenings, nights and/or weekends—collectively termed ‘nonstandard work schedules.’ Four out of 10 working mothers reported working non-standard hours, along with 57 per cent of working fathers.

We could see that fathers who did this type of work tended to have higher family income than women who did so. Thirty-five per cent of fathers worked more than 45 hours per week, compared with just four per cent of mothers

We didn’t find any significant effect on the mental health of mothers who worked unsocial hours or whose partners did so – though mothers had lower relationship happiness scores if they worked standard hours and their partners worked non-standard ones.

We did find fathers who moved into evening or weekend work had worse mental health, though fathers’ non-standard work schedules were not significantly associated with relationship happiness.

Integrating work and family demands

Thus, one of our key findings is the absence of any overwhelmingly negative association between non-standard work schedules and mothers’ mental health. Maybe working non-standard work schedules enables families to organise their lives in a way that integrates work with family demands, as the Taylor Review suggested. So, mothers may be using such work schedules as a deliberate strategy to balance work and family needs – while other studies have suggested otherwise, they focused on the first two years of life while we were able to look across the first decade of a child’s life.

Our second key finding is that non-standard work is associated with worse mental health for fathers. This was particularly the case for those who worked evenings and weekends. 

Why might results differ between mothers and fathers? Some research has suggested fathers are increasingly seen both as caregivers and as income providers. For fathers working non-standard hours this may be even more the case, perhaps placing them under new forms of strain. 

The role of fathers

Our second study (link when published) looked in more detail at the dual roles of fathers: how do their work schedules and those of their partners interact with parenting in infancy and middle childhood? We were able to look at the time spent on basic care when children were nine months old and when they were seven years, and we were also able to look at time spent on physical play or recreation with seven-year-olds.

Fathers of nine-month-old babies were asked how often they looked after them alone, changed nappies, administered feeds or got up in the night. Fathers of seven-year-olds were asked if they helped their child get ready for bed or looked after them alone. They were also asked how often they read with or to their child, told stories, did musical activities, drew, played physically active games, took the child to the park or playground or played with toys or games indoors.

Fathers tended to do more care with seven-year-olds than they did with younger children. Those who worked evenings did less basic care than those working standard hours, but by the time their children were seven they had higher levels of play and recreation. Those who worked nights did more basic care both when children were infants and aged seven, while working weekends was linked to lower levels both of basic care and of play.

Policy implications

Our findings have potential implications both for policy and for practice in workplaces: pay premiums for working outside of standard hours, incentives for child-care facilities to remain open in the evenings and weekends, and predictable work schedules which enable families to maintain routines could all help.

In supportive workplaces fathers are able to make more use of paternity and parental leave. And the pandemic has shown us how many jobs can be worked flexibly. To ensure flexible working is inclusive, employers can advertise vacancies as flexible and reduce the qualifying period – currently 26 weeks in new employment – before requesting flexible work schedules. They might also wish to work to reduce stigma around flexible working for men, and to ensure policies are geared as much towards fathers as mothers. Lastly, interventions could help parents manage the stresses and challenges of non-standard working.

Our results call for further understanding of the mechanisms that enable or constrain parenting activities when parents work non-standard hours and how this varies between countries.

Making It Work: Fathers’ Nonstandard Work Schedules and Parenting Activities is research by Afshin Zilanawala and Anne McMunn and is published in the Journal of Marriage and Family 

Nonstandard work schedules in the UK: What are the implications for parental mental health and relationship happiness? is research by Afshin Zilanawala and Anne McMunn and is published in Community, Work and Family.

Let’s be fair! The importance of a balanced approach as we extend working lives

Extending people’s working lives has become a well-established policy in many parts of Europe as governments seek to reduce state pension costs in the context of growing ageing populations. But there are concerns about the health of older workers and what poor health among workers might mean for sickness absence rates and social security costs. New research looking at working longer and sickness absence rates suggests that it might be possible to raise the retirement age without increasing sickness absence rates and social security costs unduly, but the researchers also raise concerns about widening health and social inequalities. Authors of the research Kristin Farrants and Kristina Alexanderson from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Jenny Head at University College London outline their findings.

It is generally thought that more people remaining in paid work will put less strain on public pension systems, since there will be more people paying into the system, and fewer people drawing on it, even if some people withdraw their old age pension at the same time as they have paid work.

The flip side of this thinking is that there could be a large group of people, especially those on low incomes and with lower levels of education, who may simply not be healthy enough to justify those increases in retirement age. In other words, increasing the pension age could lead to higher costs for the sickness absence insurance system.

In our research, the first to look at the links between being in paid work and sickness absence after the age of 65, we used Swedish data to look at a 12-year period of the lives of 218,000 workers who turned 65 in 2000, 2005, or 2010.

In line with policies to encourage people to work longer, we could see that the proportion of each of our cohorts in paid work after 65 did indeed increase over time. In fact, between the 2000 and 2010 cohorts, the number of people in paid work aged above 65 doubled from around 50 to 100 thousand. However, in the studied years there were no changes introduced regarding change of pension years. Age 65 was the prevalent age for old-age pension, which could be taken at 61.

Sickness absence

When we looked at sickness absence, the proportion of workers aged 66 – 71 years with a sickness absence spell lasting for more than 14 days increased only marginally between the 2000 and 2010 cohorts. This indicates that there is a health potential, a justification for further increases in state pension ages and reassurance for those worried about the social and economic knock-ons of extending working lives.

However, closer scrutiny of the data threw up some concerns around who was most likely to work after age 65 and the implications of that – in other words would some people from certain backgrounds benefit more than others from the ability to work longer and remain healthy thus reinforcing inequalities?

Being a man, having high education, being born in Sweden, living in a large city, and having no prior sickness absence or (especially) part-time disability pension was associated with being in paid work after age 65.

Among those in paid work after age 65, being born in the “Nordic countries outside Sweden” for women, and in “EU-27 outside the Nordic countries” or in “the rest of the world” for men, and living in a large city, having prior sickness absence, and no prior disability pension was associated with having sickness absence.

Actually, several of those with previous sickness absence and/or part-time disability pension also continued in paid work. Those, as well as others, of course had complaints that sometimes led to work incapacity and need of sickness absence – however, to a much lower degree than when aged 60-64.

Possible reasons for their lower sickness absence, especially in relation to the massive increase in proportions of people in paid work, warrants further investigations. The general better health of older people might be one of those aspects, however, work adjustments regarding work hours, work times, work tasks might be others.

Policy makers need to consider how they can best support people with different health conditions to remain in paid work after the age of 65 if health and income inequalities are not to become entrenched and wider as state pension ages rise further in the future. Fairness and balance are key!

Trends in Associations Between Sickness Absence Before the Age of 65 and Being in Paid Work After the Age of 65: Prospective Study of Three Total Population Cohorts is research by Kristin Farrants, Jenny Head and Kristina Alexanderson and is published in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy.

Who suffers most from the health effects of long-term work stress?

As populations across the developed world grow older, Governments are keen to find ways to enable workers to stay active and fit for longer. We know work-related stress can lead to long-term health problems: but which types of employment histories are particularly harmful, and how do the effects play out over time? A new study by Morten Wahrendorf, Tarani Chandola and colleagues points to a need for early intervention with disadvantaged groups of workers.

Most studies on occupational stress focus on a particular point in time. But what if the effects of troubled working lives build up over many years, in terms of adverse employment trajectories over an extended time period? Some workers suffer repeated periods of unemployment throughout their working lives, for instance. We wanted to know how different types of work histories might be linked to health problems in later life.

We were able to examine these questions using data from the French CONSTANCES cohort study, which allowed us to combine information on participants’ employment histories from age 25-45 with health-related information.

Can stressful working lives lead to health issues over a long period? To address this question, we looked at a sub-sample of just over 90,000 people of the CONSTANCES study who had been in work between the ages of 25 and 45, and who had not had to leave work or take a break due to ill health during that period.

The information we had included the numbers of temporary jobs participants held and the number of job changes they had; how many times they were unemployed and how long they spent out of work. We could also see what sort of job they had and whether or not they gained promotion – this enabled us to identify if they suffered from job instability or other types of cumulative disadvantage.

Wear and tear

Participants in the study were also asked to fill in health questionnaires as well as undertaking medical examinations and giving blood samples. This enabled us to calculate their ‘allostatic load’ (AL) – a biological measure of the wear and tear on the body (i.e. the damage to the body) which accumulates as an individual is exposed to chronic stress throughout working life. And that is associated with long-term conditions such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and depression.

In this study we were able to include measures on a total of 10 items to measure allostatic load, including blood pressure, lung function, waist-to-hip ratio, cholesterol levels, kidney function, fasting blood sugar and the immune and inflammatory system.

Men and women were considered separately and we were able to look at whether participants were in a stable relationship as well as their level of education.

Our key findings were as follows:

– Both men and women who suffered disadvantage at work had a higher allostatic load: it was possible to measure physical health effects linked to work stress. Women who had skilled or semi-skilled jobs had a higher load than managers or professionals. Both men and women suffered if they had been out of the labour market for six years or more.

  Men who were rejected for promotion had slightly higher scores, as did women who had a high number of temporary jobs.

  • Frequent job moves were not associated with ill-effects on health: these might be made for positive reasons such as promotion.
  • The effects remained even after we controlled for other career characteristics. They were the same for all the different health indicators we looked at, bar one: kidney function.
  • The impact on health was particularly high for those who had continuously been in low-skilled, high-stress types of work, with repeated or lengthy periods of unemployment.

Adversity

Our study suggests that people who suffer adversity in their working lives over an extended period are more likely to suffer long-term health conditions in later life. It underlines the importance of those links between chronic work stress and disease. 

The potential benefits of promoting healthy work conditions, particularly among more disadvantaged groups and at early stages of their working lives, are clear from this study. The potential benefits will support both employees, in helping them to stay healthy for longer, and employers, who could cut rates of sickness and retirement through ill-health.

Adverse employment histories and allostatic load: associations over the working life is by Morten Wahrendorf , Tarani Chandola , Marcel Goldberg, Marie Zins, Hanno Hoven and Johannes Siegrist, and is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Being accommodating in the workplace: could it help close the disability employment gap? 

In 2020, 8.4 million people of working age (16-64) reported that they were disabled which is 20% of the working age population. 52 percent of disabled people aged 16-64 were in work compared with  81 percent of non-disabled people. It’s a gap the Department for Work and Pensions wants to tackle, but good research for evidence-based policy solutions in this area is thin on the ground. New research from Tarani Chandola and Patrick Rouxel suggests that ‘workplace accommodations’ such as flexible or part-time working, mentorship and training and support could help the Government achieve its 10 year ambition to halve the disability employment gap.

In its 2017 policy paper Improving lives: the future of work, health and disability, the DWP committed to seeing the number of  disabled work in work rise by 1 million from 3.5 to 4.5 million over the subsequent 10 years. 

When we talk about the disability employment gap we mean the difference between the number of people with a disability who are in work compared with those without a disability. The gap comes about through people having to leave work through ill-health or the onset of physical or mental health problems whilst working, together with the fact that if you’re disabled, you have considerably lower chances of getting a job in the first place. The large majority (83 percent) become disabled whilst they are in work and once they do the likelihood of them being in work a year later is much reduced.

There has been little research in this area, particularly when it comes to looking at all this in the round in order to get the bigger picture as it relates to all workers who use some sort of work place accommodation or adjustment to how, where and when they carry out the role. In order to make sound policy recommendations that work for disabled people and employers, the Government has been looking to develop a more comprehensive evidence base. 

Rather than starting with a person’s medical condition, we thought it could be useful to examine which workers (no matter the state of their health) are able to access e.g. a technical solution that means they can fulfil a role they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, as well as a range of flexible arrangements such as working hours, modified duties, being based at home, having access to a mentor. 

We wanted to try to establish who and how these arrangements and adaptations help to remain in work.

Barriers faced

We made use of information on more than 6,000 participants from the Life Opportunities Survey , which looks specifically at the barriers disabled people face in participating in various aspects of life including work. 

Around a third of the people we looked at who were in work reported some sort of impairment – a problem with their sight, hearing, mobility, pain, breathing, learning mental health or with a range of other conditions and disability-related issues. They were more likely to be out of work a year later than peers with no impairment, particularly if their impairments were to do with mobility or dexterity in which case they were three times more likely to be unemployed.

Workers with some sort of impairment or disability who had modified work duties or hours were more likely to remain economically active (in work or looking for work) than those who reported no such accommodations.

Modifications

A modified work area or equipment led to workers being twice as likely to stay in work. Indeed the more modifications reported, the more likely workers with an impairment were to be in work one year later.

Particularly noteworthy was how true this was for workers with mental impairments. Those who had no workplace accommodations were over 2/3rds (or 70 percent) less likely to remain in work than workers with no mental impairment.

This stark gap closed where two or more accommodations were reported. Also interesting was the fact that people with mental impairments were considerably less likely than those who reported physical pain to report an increase in their workplace accommodations. 

Looking at the wider picture of who accesses work accommodations and why, the main reason was not actually related to disability at all, but with having caring responsibilities.

The key things we learn from all this are that despite the evidence that workers with mental impairments could benefit considerably from workplace accommodations, they are less likely to have their workplace adjusted to take account of it.

This is something that could be a focus for policymakers and employers looking to close the disability employment gap. It should be especially helpful in informing managers and supervisors who have a crucial role in creating healthy and inclusive workplaces where all can thrive and progress. 

The role of workplace accommodations in explaining the disability employment gap in the UK is research by Tarani Chandola and Patrick Rouxel and is published in Social Science & Medicine.

Could having a psychologically demanding job actually be good for you?

Recent research has highlighted that those in psychologically demanding jobs which don’t offer possibility of control are more likely to become ill or to leave the labour market early. But a new study carried out in Sweden suggests the picture may be more complex than previously thought – for some workers, having a demanding job can be associated with good outcomes. Kristin Farrants from the Karolinska Institutet outlines what she and colleagues found and what it might mean for extending people’s working lives.

Governments across the developed world are interested in exploring how people can be enabled to extend their working lives. And a key part of that discussion has focused on how working conditions affect the likelihood that workers will stay on longer.

We know from earlier research that the working environment can affect how people feel about working into later life – if they are in jobs which are demanding but which don’t give them much control, they tend to want to leave. But until now we didn’t know much about what actually happened – do those intentions turn into reality? And what is the relationship between the demands of the job and the amount of control the worker has, when it comes to working after the usual retirement age?

We used nationwide register data from Statistics Sweden, to study all the 55-64 year-olds living and working in Sweden in December 2001. We followed up the same individuals 11 years later, in 2012, to see whether they were still working.

As predicted, we found that those who were in jobs with low levels of control in 2001 were less likely to be in paid work in 2012, while the reverse was true for those with a high level of control over their work tasks.

But when it came to how demanding the job was, the picture was more nuanced. Overall, those with more demanding jobs were less likely to have old-age pension, sick-leave benefits, or social assistance, 11 years on, than those with less demanding jobs, while those with low-demand, low-control jobs were less likely than others to carry on working.

Women and men

But there were significant differences between women and men. We found that when it came to control at work, women who had a high level of control over their work tasks were more likely to stay on in paid work, even if their jobs were not very demanding. For men, this was only the case if their jobs were both high-demand and high-control.

A possible explanation for these gender differences is that the jobs market in Sweden is highly gendered: perhaps the difference is in the type of jobs men and women do, rather than in the level of control or stress they have. It could also be due to differences in other factors, such as family needs, income or health.

Our findings support the underlying theory, which was first proposed in the 1970s by Robert Karasek. His Job Demand Control Model suggests it is high demands in combination with low control that leads to stress which can be bad for our health. Karasek’s model suggests that it is not stress, per se, which makes us ill – it is the mismatch between being asked to do a lot and yet not feeling in control of how we do it. So if our jobs are very demanding yet we feel we are in the driving seat, that makes a big difference to us.

Staying in paid work

Why does this matter? Across the developed world we have falling birth rates and increasing life expectancy – so it’s important to governments that people stay in jobs rather than retiring early. And if workers can stay healthy, this will be easier to achieve.

We already know that low levels of control are associated with high levels of disease, disability and sick leave. But the evidence about the role of job demands has been more equivocal.

Our research adds new depth to the picture. High-stress jobs are not necessarily bad; in fact a demanding job can be a positive factor in older people’s lives. Jobs which stretch and challenge us can keep us moving on in the labour market – and as well help us stay healthy.

Associations between combinations of job demands and job control among 616,818 people aged 55-64 in paid work with their labour market status 11 years later: a prospective cohort study, by Kristin Farrants, Jenny Head, Elisabeth Framke, Reiner Rugulies and Kristina Alexanderson, is published in International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health .

Lockdown – just how stressful has it been?

2020 is a year many will be happy to see the back of. It has been a stressful time for sure with periods of lockdown creating major challenges for our day to day work and family lives. But have the stresses and strains associated with lockdown affected the mental health of the UK population as a whole? Tarani Chandola and colleagues have been using specially collected COVID19 data to investigate.

On March 23, the UK found itself in its first lockdown, a direct result of rising infection rates and deaths caused by the pandemic. The new normal for many was working from home whilst trying to homeschool children. The weekly shop involved queues and masks and social distancing. Getting a doctor or dentist appointment or scheduled medical treatment took on a whole new dimension. Trips to the pub, cinema and theatre were things people could no longer look forward to and looking out for elderly relatives and friends became more important and challenging in equal measure.

Gradually through the Summer months, many of these restrictions were eased and the majority of children returned to school. Businesses including pubs, gyms and hairdressers were able to re-open albeit with strict social distancing and hygiene measures in place.

The severity of the restrictions combined with the direct effects of the disease itself created what might be described as a perfect storm of increased potential stresses likely to adversely affect the mental health of people everywhere. Most of us will have felt fearful about catching the disease, and many will have experienced additional worries for already vulnerable family and friends. The realities of working at home brought its own challenges while for others being furloughed or losing their job brought additional anxiety. 

Although there have been widespread reports of worsening mental health and wellbeing through the first UK lockdown, there have also been some reports that this eased somewhat through April and May although not back to pre-pandemic levels.

COVID-19 data

In our research, which made use of data from Understanding Society including its specially-collected COVID-19 study, we were able to look across a slightly longer period of time at the experiences of between 13,000 and 17,000 people in the UK. These were people who had been involved in the survey for many years, so there was a great deal of background information available as a backdrop for our research. 

We wanted to see whether more people were reporting struggling with mental health problems and to what extent the prevalence of problems was directly related to the stresses and strains of lockdown and the pandemic specifically. We also wanted to see if, after the initial ‘shock’ of events in April eased in subsequent months as people began to adapt and ‘get used to’ their new circumstances.

Between April and July study participants were asked a range of questions directly related to the disease itself including whether they had had it, been tested for it or experienced symptoms. There were also questions about any other health treatment, their families, work and money- related concerns such as struggling to pay the bills.

Every month people were asked about their work status so we could see for example  who was employed, self-employed, working reduced hours, furloughed or been made redundant. They were also asked about hours spent on childcare and homeschooling or whether they felt lonely.

Common mental disorder

Before lockdown just under 25 per cent of people in the UK had experienced mental health issues and this rose to just over 37 per cent in April, so more than a third of the population. There was a gradual dropping off of cases through to July (just under 26 per cent) taking things almost back to pre-lockdown levels. 

The percentage of new cases of mental health problems among participants in April was double (around 28 percent) what it was in the preceding 12 months.

And recovery rates from a mental health issue dropped from pre-lockdown months through April to June but picked up again in July, by which time social restrictions had been eased considerably and, our research shows, potential stressors around COVID itself, juggling work and family responsibilities and health, business and money concerns had decreased for most.

The number of people who reported having some sort of health limiting condition and having to cancel or postpone medical treatment halved from April to July. Over the same period, the number of self-employed people who said their business had been adversely affected also went down from 3.6 percent to 0.6 percent. Employees who reported being made unemployed or being on reduced hours also more than halved and there was only a small increase in the proportion of people describing themselves as ‘economically inactive’. 

Rates of reporting ‘often feeling lonely’ went down from 8.8 to 6.7 percent and fewer people reported having to spend more than 16 hours a week on childcare or homeschooling although there was a small increase in the proportion of people spending 1-15 hours on those tasks.

For some people, problems with paying bills remained an issue throughout the period,  although the percentage of people who said they found things very difficult financially or who said the future looked bleaker financially reduced somewhat from April onwards. 

Which stresses affected people most?

The strongest link between lockdown related stress was loneliness. People in the survey who reported ‘often feeling lonely’ were 11 to 16 times more likely to have mental health problems from the April to July compared to those who never felt lonely. Other important stressors were having COVID-19 symptoms and always working from home. 

Self-employed people whose businesses were negatively impacted by COVID-19 were more likely to develop a mental health problem compared to their peers whose businesses were not. And by July, employees who became unemployed, or were made redundant or whose work hours were reduced were over two times as likely to develop a problem compared with those who were unaffected. 

Adults doing16 hours or more a week on childcare or home schooling were about 1.4 times more likely to develop a problem compared to those who had no children or did not spend any time on childcare. 

Adults who were finding it quite or very difficult financially were 2.4 times more likely to develop a mental health issue compared to those who were living comfortably. Similarly, adults who expected their future finances to be worse off than now were 1.6 times more likely.

Longitudinal analysis

Our findings from looking at this group of people across April to July are in line with other surveys undertaken by the Office of National Statistics and the UCL COVID-19 study of 90,000 adults. We add to that picture by looking more closely at which stressful circumstances are most likely to drive up incidences of poor mental health during a pandemic of this nature. 

We conclude that despite the lifting of many lockdown conditions by July and a decrease in the levels of many of the psychological and social stressors, these stressors continued to drive poor mental health among people who were lonely and those who were made unemployed or redundant, had financial problems or had childcare or home schooling duties.

As unemployment and redundancy increase in the labour market, an inevitable result of recent events, it will be important to keep monitoring the mental health consequences of unemployment. It is Interesting also to note that employees who were furloughed had about the same levels of mental health problems as employees whose job hours were not affected. This suggests that the government measures to protect jobs also had positive mental health benefits for those employees who were able to keep their jobs albeit in a “furloughed” state.

The mental health impact of COVID-19 and lockdown-related stressors among adults in the UK is research by Tarani Chandola, Cara Booker, Meena Kumari and Michaela Benzeval and  is published in Psychological Medicine

Leaving school: how do work and family transitions affect women’s wealth and wellbeing later on?

How have the early adult lives of a generation of young women who grew up after the war impacted on their lives now? Baowen Xue and Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL discuss two new papers which look at life satisfaction, mental health and economic wealth among older women. Their findings suggest early marriage and domestic labour are linked to worse outcomes later in life. 

The move out of education into work, marriage and parenthood is a sensitive time for young people and can set the course for their later lives. So which circumstances have turned out to be beneficial, and which have been less so?

We used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, ELSA, to look for answers to these questions. Our study followed a sample of over-50s who have been interviewed every two years since 2002. A Life history interview was conducted additionally to collect information about their  education, work and family lives.

We identified a group of almost 4,000 women born before 1956 who answered questions on life satisfaction and mental health, and in our second paper a smaller group of just under 1800 for whom income data was also available.

Our hypothesis as we set out on the research was that those who married and had children later, and who therefore tended to have stronger ties to work early on, would have better mental health in later life. This largely proved to be true, though remaining single was not the answer: this group tended to suffer from isolation and loneliness later in life.

We identified six types of transition from education into work and family life: Early marriage and domestic labour, later marriage and domestic labour, later marriage and later work entry, later marriage and early work entry, early work entry and remaining single, and a group whose experiences were mixed and included lone parenthood, marriage with or without children and a mixture of employment types.

Early motherhood and domestic labour

The key finding in our study was that women who took on motherhood and domestic labour at an early stage were more likely to suffer from depression and lower life satisfaction in later life than those who went to work early and married late. Those with mixed histories and those who stayed single and childless were also more vulnerable to poor mental health and low life satisfaction. But those who started work late – often through staying in education – and also married late had the highest life satisfaction and the lowest level of mental illness.

We found that these effects could by and large be linked to socioeconomic status: those from more privileged backgrounds tended to gain higher educational qualifications, to enter work later and to marry later, and that set them on a path to a better quality of life later on. Conversely, those from less privileged backgrounds tended to gain fewer qualifications, to marry earlier and to have a poorer quality of life later.

A second paper, also using ELSA data asked a linked question: how does leaving full-time education and becoming a home-maker at an early stage affect women’s economic wealth later in life?

We took the life histories of just under 1800 women born between 1939 and 1952, and looked at when they left education as well as how their entry into work affected their financial situation in later life. 

We found those who left education early and went straight into domestic roles were four times less likely than their more educated peers to be in the highest household wealth bracket in later life.

Women who started work between the ages of 21 and 24 were 40 per cent more likely to be in professional or managerial jobs than those who left school by age 16 and started work early. They were 53 per cent more likely to be in the top earnings bracket for women of their age and were almost four times more likely to be in the top bracket for total household wealth.

We concluded that the age at which women leave education plays a pivotal role in their later economic, personal and mental wellbeing. For the generation of women who are now pensioners, an early entry into domestic rather than paid labour cast a long shadow, while higher education conferred particular advantages. 

As higher education and later partnership have become the norm for today’s young women, these studies will form a baseline which will one day enable us to see whether their experiences compare or contrast with those of their grandmothers’ generation.

The Long Shadow of Youth: Girls’ Transition From Full-Time Education and Later-Life Subjective Well-Being in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is research by Baowen Xue, Penny Tinkler and Anne McMunn and is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences

Girls’ transition to adulthood and their later life socio-economic attainment: Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is research by BaoWen Xue, Penny Tinkler, Paola Zaninotto and Anne Mc Munn and is published in Advances in Life Course Research.

Anne McMunn and BaoWen Xue are based at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL. Paola Zaninotto works with the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing at UCL and Penny Tinkler is based at the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing.

Constriction worker

Is temporary employment bad for your health?

How is the health of those in insecure jobs affected by their working lives? Rachel Sumner and colleagues* have discovered some types of work may be just as strongly linked with poor health as unemployment is.

It’s long been acknowledged that there’s a link between unemployment and poor health. A recent Government Green Paper put it starkly:

“People who are unemployed have higher rates of mortality and a lower quality of life. This is an injustice that we must address.”

But is any job really better than no job? Or could some types of employment actually be linked just as strongly to poor health?

We looked at the issue using data from the Understanding Society study, which took blood samples from more than 4500 people aged between 16 and 64 who were either working or unemployed in 2010 and 2011– we excluded those who were retired, homemaking, not working due to incapacity or in education.

Overall, 7.6 per cent of our sample were unemployed. Amongst the employed, 81.8 per cent were permanently employed, 5.3 per cent were temporarily employed and 12.9 per cent were self-employed.

Health indicators

These samples were used to show whether the study participants had raised levels of fibrinogen or C-reactive protein (CRP), both of which are inflammatory markers and are associated with increased risk of heart disease. Healthy lifestyles decrease CRP levels, while obesity, physical inactivity and smoking increase them.

We compared the levels of these markers in those who were unemployed, permanently employed, temporarily employed and self-employed. We took into account a range of individual, social and health factors which might also influence the levels of these markers.

We didn’t find links between employment status and levels of CRP – but we did find links with fibrinogen.

We looked at how the levels of fibrinogen in different types of employee compared with those who were unemployed. And while those in permanent jobs or self-employed had lower levels of this marker, those in temporary work had similar levels to the unemployed.

So, not all types of work are equally beneficial in health terms – and in particular, temporary work would seem to be linked with worse health than other types. Indeed, in health terms we may actually be just as well off being unemployed as we are in an insecure job.

Why does this matter? It matters because less stable types of employment have grown in recent decades, with many workers employed on fixed-term contracts and experiencing uncertain job conditions. This has already been shown to have negative psychological consequences.

And since the recent global recession, which happened just before our data was collected, both unemployment and temporary employment have expanded. The European Union has a higher temporary employment rate than the OECD average  – 14.2 per cent compared with 11.2 per cent in 2016.

Levels of temporary employment in the UK are lower than the EU average – just six per cent in 2017 and four per cent in 2019  – but temporary employment has become more common since the financial crisis, particularly among young people. The rate of young people in the UK going into precarious employment has already resulted in poorer mental health.

Lessons for policymakers

If temporary employment is associated with an increased risk of mortality then earlier research which has simply compared unemployment with employment has not captured the complexities of the situation.

In conclusion, our findings would suggest there is little difference between the health effects of temporary employment and unemployment, using these particular indicators.  And given the continuing rise of precarious modes of employment across developed countries, this has significant implications for public health. Policymakers should encourage employers to expand the use of permanent contracts.

Unemployment, employment precarity, and inflammation, by Rachel C. Sumner, Rachel Bennett, Ann-Marie Creaven and Stephen Gallagher, is published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

Rachel Sumner and Rachel Bennett are based at the School of Natural & Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, United Kingdom; Ann-Marie Creaven and Stephen Gallagher are at the Health Research Institute, Department of Psychology, University of Limerick, Ireland.

Young woman sat by window

Are some types of job bad for your mental health? And how can employers ensure poor mental health does not lead to early retirement?

Mental illness is a major cause of early retirement – but do those who are forced to leave work early for this reason get better afterwards? What is the relationship between work stress and mental health? A new study of public sector workers in Finland suggests there is a link – and there are important lessons for employers. Tarani Chandola from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies was among the authors of the study.

One way in which we can track the prevalence and level of mental illness is by looking at the use of psychotropic medication – that is, medication which can alter one’s mental state. This group of drugs includes common antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and antipsychotic medication. 

If there is a link between work stress and mental illness, then we should expect those forced to leave work for this reason to get better after retirement. So by tracking the levels of psychotropic medication among a group of workers before and after retirement, we could find out the extent to which there was such a link.

We were able to use data from a long-term study of Finnish public sector workers to examine the issue more closely. 

It matters because previous studies have shown an increase in the use of this group of drugs among all those who take disability retirement, particularly those whose retirement was due to mental ill health. Those from higher social classes saw the biggest drop in medication use after retirement, suggesting there are social factors at play here, too.

Global issues

The effect does seem to vary around the globe, though – some studies from Asia found an increase, rather than a decrease, in mental health problems after leaving work. But in Europe, retirement has often been found to be followed by an improvement in both mental and physical health. Retirees have reported sleeping better, feeling less tired and generally feeling a greater sense of wellbeing. 

We were able to use data from the Finnish Public Sector study cohort study, which followed all employees working in one of 10 towns and six hospital districts between 1991 and 2005. The study included participants from a wide range of occupations including administrative staff, cleaners, cleaners and doctors, and they were followed up at four-year intervals regardless of whether they were still in the same jobs. Their survey responses were linked to a register of medication purchases for at least two years before retirement and two years after.

We had information on 2,766 participants who took retirement because of disability. Uniquely, the data included both participants’ use of medication and their perceived levels of work stress. So we were able to ask whether there were differences in this pre and post-retirement effect between those in low and high-stress jobs.

Specifically, we looked at something called effort-reward imbalance – that is, when workers put in too much effort at work but get few rewards in compensation: according to a recent review, this carries an increased risk of depressive illness. 

If our theories were correct, we would see a decline in the use of psychotropic medication after disability retirement, and it would be greatest among those with high levels of effort-reward imbalance. Along with mental illness the other major cause of disability retirement in Finland is musculoskeletal disease, so we categorised our sample in three groups – mental illness, musculoskeletal disease and ‘other.’ Eight out of 10 in the sample were women, and three out of 10 reported high effort-reward imbalance before retirement.

Unsurprisingly, those who retired due to a mental disorder had the greatest increase in psychotropic drug use before retirement. And those who were in high-stress, low-reward jobs had higher levels of medication use than those who were not. But after retirement, there was no difference in psychotropic drug use between those with high vs low effort-reward imbalance. It looked as though stopping work in high stress jobs reduced the need for higher psychotropic medication use among those workers who exited the labour market for mental health reasons.  

Retirement because of musculoskeletal disease or other causes was not associated with any similar link between stress level and psychotropic medication.

Lessons for employers

Our study showed that among people retiring due to mental disorders, those in high-stress, low-reward jobs benefited most from retirement. So it’s likely that they could benefit from the alleviation of work-related stress before retirement, too.

In conclusion, if employers could find ways of reducing the levels of stress suffered by employees suffering from mental ill-health, their early exit from paid employment might be prevented and their working lives might be extended. 

Psychotropic medication before and after disability retirement by pre-retirement perceived work-related stress was published in the European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 0, No. 0, 1–6. 

The other authors were Jaana Halonen, Taina Leinonen, Ville Aalto, Tuula Oksanen, Mika Kivimäki and Tea Lallukka of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health; Hugo Westerlund and Marianna Virtanen of the Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University; Martin Hyde of the Centre for Innovative Ageing, Swansea University; Jaana Pentti, Sari Stenholm and Jussi Vahtera of the Department of Public Health, University of Turku; Minna Mänty of the Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki; Mikko Laaksonen of the Research Department, Finnish Center for Pension.

These authors also have the following additional affiliations: Jaana Halonen; Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University; Jaana Pentti; Department of Public Health, University of Turku; Minna Mänty; Statistics and Research, City of Vantaa, Finland; Mika Kivimäki, Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki and Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London; Marianna Virtanen, School of Educational Sciences and Psychology, University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu; Tea Lallukka, Department of Public Health, University of Helsinki.

Are universal state pensions discriminating against those in lower-skilled jobs?

With the state pension age likely to rise further in coming years, are policymakers right to link pension eligibility to average life expectancy? In a one-size-fits-all system, which social groups will lose out? Dr Emily Murray and colleagues* used census data to look at who lives longest after leaving work.

In most industrialised countries, the eligibility age for state pensions is being increased. Between 2011 and 2018, the United Kingdom government raised the State Pension Age for women from age 60 to 65, to match that for men, and a further increase to age 67 for both genders is planned by 2028. A further increase to age 68 by 2039 has been mooted.

Yet our state pension system ignores some very basic facts – it doesn’t take into account the wide disparities in health and life expectancy between different social classes. Those in professional occupations can expect to live longer and to enjoy good health for longer than those in manual jobs. For example, the average 50 year-old man in a professional job can expect to enjoy a further 25 years of good health, while a man the same age in a manual occupation can only expect 18: a seven-year difference. That is why lower social class groups are more likely to find themselves on disability benefit.

We wanted to look more closely at these occupational social class differences in the amount of time older adults live after they stop work, and in particular at the extent to which these differences are due to health.

We used the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, a one per cent representative sample of respondents to the English and Welsh censuses since 1971.  For our analysis, we included respondents who were aged 50-75 at the time of the 2001 census and who had stopped work by 2011 – the average age of stopping was 58 for women and 60.2 for men. These workers were born in 1951 or earlier, so men would have been eligible for state pension at 65 and women at 60.

That gave us a sample of 76,485 people, and over the next 10 years we were able to monitor deaths  – by 2011 14.6 per cent of the women and 25.1 per cent of the men had died.

We could see that for both genders, those in lower social classes tended to die younger – professional women lived two years longer than unskilled women, and professional men three years longer than unskilled men.

We estimated professional women in good health would live five years longer than unskilled women in poor health, while for men the gap would be five and a half years.

But despite these longevity gaps, those from lower social groups were facing more years between leaving work and being able to draw their state pensions – because they left work earlier.

We estimated that if two women were 65 in 2001, the woman who had worked in an unskilled occupation would live five years longer after leaving work than the professional woman with good health – because the unskilled woman would have left at a younger age. Two men in the same circumstances would live on average 25.0 and 19.5 years from stopping work to death.

The most likely explanation is that poor health has a greater impact on the ability of manual workers to continue working than it does on non-manual workers.  It is however important to note that associations between social class and post-work years were not entirely explained by health, and we feel more research is needed on this.

Poor health

But the conclusion is clear: our results show that a uniform state pension age disproportionately affects the poorest among us, because on average they must wait longer between stopping work and qualifying for their state pension, at a time when they are likely to be in poor health. This is despite the fact that they are likely to have started work younger and therefore to have worked and paid contributions for just as many years as their better-off peers.

The solution to this inequality is not straightforward. The preferred strategy for UK policymakers is to support individuals to stay in work for longer, and there is evidence that the average age of leaving work exit is increasing.  However, over half of women and two-fifths of men  still fall out of the labour market before state pension age.

Some researchers have suggested that pension ages should directly reflect life expectancy differences.  Alternatively the age requirement could be dropped and pension eligibility could be based solely on the number of years in work.

We believe a two-year earlier pension age may be more appropriate for individuals who work in manual occupations, given that they leave work earlier than professional workers not in good health.  With rises in pension age already in law, and evidence of stalling life expectancy, it is vital that researchers and policy-makers assess how these rises will influence financial security and health for the most vulnerable in society.

Inequalities in time from stopping paid work to death: findings from the ONS Longitudinal Study, 2001 to 2011 is by Emily T Murray,  Ewan Carr, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Baowen Xue, Stephen Stansfeld, Brian Beach and  Nicola Shelton.

*Emily T Murray, Ewan Carr, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Nicola Shelton and Baowen Xue are based at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London.

Ewan Carr is also based at the department of Biostatistics and Health Informatics, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, London.

Stephen Stansfeld is based at Queen Mary University of London, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Centre for Psychiatry, London, EC1M 6BQ, UK

Brian Beach is based at the International Longevity Centre – UK, SW1P 3QB, London, UK.