Tag Archives: Flexible working

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.

Were women’s domestic burdens eased by Covid-19 lockdowns? And will the pandemic have a lasting effect on household work-sharing?

In October 2020, WorkLife featured research  from Baowen Xue and Anne McMunn showing how badly the pandemic was affecting the mental health of working parents, especially single mothers. The researchers expressed concerns over the reversal of pre-pandemic trends towards a more gender equal society and supported calls from the Women’s Budget Group for a care-led recovery. Now a team of researchers from the University of Bristol-led Equal Lives project has gone on to look at the way domestic work was shared during and after lockdown in 2020. Susan Harkness from the University of Bristol and Aleja Rodriguez Sanchez from Humboldt University in Berlin explain what they found and the implications for this hard-hit group.

Covid-19 has confined whole families to their homes and has changed the way domestic work is shared, but those with young children have seen a quicker return to the way things were pre-lockdown, something that indicates a ‘re-traditionalisation’ of roles for this particular group of hard-hit women.

The first Covid-19 lockdowns in the Spring of 2020 threw parents and children into unfamiliar situations, with whole families working or studying from home. So, for opposite-sex couples, what did this mean for traditional gender divisions of household chores? Were women’s greater domestic burdens altered by having both parents at home? And what happened as the lockdown started to ease in the Summer of 2020?

The Equal Lives team set out to answer these questions using data gathered by the Understanding Society COVID-19 study in April, May, June and September 2020. Understanding Society is the largest longitudinal household panel study of its kind, and follows a sample of UK households: from April 2020 its participants were asked to complete monthly web surveys about the impact of the pandemic on their lives.

Responses from people of working age who were in opposite-gender relationships which continued throughout the study period – provided a final sample size of just over 2000 couples.

Lockdown shocks

These couples were asked about the gender division of housework during the first lock-down, during April 2020. This was compared with information collected from pre-lockdown surveys, carried out during 2019. They were also asked whether those changes persisted when the first lockdown eased. We compared those with no children at home to those with children of various ages.

What we saw was that, as with other types of shock which affect the division of labour, couples tended to adapt. Initially, there was a moderate amount of gender rebalancing in the sharing of domestic work, but this was dependent on the number and age of the couple’s children. However, by September 2020 the old gender divisions had largely been re-established. 

Overall the findings showed that both men’s and women’s paid working hours reduced substantially in the Spring of 2020 but recovered by September. During the Spring lockdown, around a third of both male and female respondents were employed but working from home; a figure which reduced to just under a quarter by September. Around one in five women and one in seven men were furloughed in the Spring, but this dropped to fewer than one in 20 by September.

Overall, women’s share of housework fell from 65 per cent pre-Covid to 60 per cent during the first lockdown. By September this rose back to 62 per cent. Both men and women increased their hours of domestic work during lockdown – from 13 to just under 15 for women, and from six and a half to nine and a half for men. 

Childcare burdens

When the respondents were split into three groups – those who had no children living at home, those who had children under the age of five and those who had older children – marked differences emerged. 

For couples without children at home, women’s share of domestic labour fell during the Spring and continued to fall after the Summer. Though these women still did more domestic work than their partners, their input did not return to pre-Covid levels.

For those with children aged 6-15, the drop in women’s share of housework was partially reversed by September, but the bounce back was less marked and they were still doing less than before the pandemic. 

But for those with children under five, the drop in women’s share of housework was reversed completely by September despite being more marked than that of other groups in Spring.

Family dynamics 

So what do we make of this? In terms of family dynamics, the lockdown may have had more lasting effects for some families than for others. Fears that advances in gender equality could be reversed during the pandemic were more real for those with very young children, who were much less able to keep themselves busy and who were not offered online education.  

One important reason for the division of labour during lockdown was men’s and women’s working hours – women with young children tended to reduce their paid working hours more in order to take on the increased burden of care. 

Our study highlights the need for a nuanced perspective on changes to family life during the pandemic and further research is needed to look at whether extended family networks were able to alleviate the increased care burden for some families, and at how the pandemic affected the mental health of women with and without children. Additionally, it would be useful to look at how different countries’ lockdowns might have affected families differently. 

Gendered division of housework during the COVID-19 pandemic: temporary shocks or dura-ble change? is research by Alejandra Rodríguez Sánchez, Anette E. Fasang and Susan E. Harkness and is published by Demographic Research.

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

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.

Is working flexibly good for your health?

Flexible working is considered good practice – and in England, most workers have the right to apply to work flexibly after they’ve been in their job six months. But what do we know about the benefits? A new study by Tarani Chandola and colleagues used biological measures to look at differences in stress markers among workers with reduced hours and those without.

In recent years many employees have been able to alter their work patterns to fit in with childcare and other responsibilities. Typically, this can mean working part-time, job-sharing, only working during school term-times or working from home some of the time.

It’s assumed this should help to relieve stress. But until now, we didn’t know whether this was necessarily the case. After all, there could be down-sides – for example working at home can mean a blurring of the boundaries between work and family time, part-time working can be a barrier to promotion and job-sharing can bring its own tensions.

Until recently we had to rely on workers’ own reports of how they felt in order to judge this interplay between work, family life and stress. But now a number of social surveys have begun collecting samples which allow us to measure biological changes which can indicate stress, too.

This is known as ‘allostatic load’ – when we’re repeatedly subjected to stress or trauma, this can lead to chronically heightened levels of stress hormones. And that is associated with all sorts of long-term health problems, such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and depression.

We were able to use data from participants in the Understanding Society study, which began in 2009 and which follows more than 60,000 adults in 40,000 households. As well as responding to detailed questionnaires, many of them have been visited by nurses who have taken physical measurements and blood samples.

Blood-based markers

As well as blood-based markers such as insulin growth factor 1 and cholesterol, their pulse rate, blood pressure and waist-to height ratio were also measured.

After taking out those who weren’t employed, who didn’t have the nurse visits or for whom some measurements were missing, we had a sample of a little over 6,000 people.

All those people had been asked whether flexible working arrangements were available at their workplace, how many hours they worked and whether they were the primary carer for their children.

We categorised working hours into three groups, with different levels for men and women because they tend to have very different working patterns. So women were grouped into those working less than 24 hours per week, more than 25 hours and more than 37 hours; while men were grouped into those working less than 37 hours, 37-40 hours and more than 40 hours.

Unsurprisingly, we found more women than men had made use of flexible working  arrangements – almost no men in our sample were the main carers for two or more children.

Chronic stress

There were particularly high levels of biological chronic stress markers among women with childcare responsibilities who worked more than 37 hours per week. Those with similar childcare responsibilities but working fewer than 25 hours per week didn’t have any measurable effect on their stress levels.

Both men and women who had access to, and made use of, reduced-hours flexible working had lower levels of biological stress markers than those who didn’t have flexible working.

We found these types of reduced-hours arrangement were more common among those in lower-paid occupations, especially among men, and among older workers of both genders.

Other types of flexible working arrangements, such as working from home, were more common among those from more advantaged social groups. But we didn’t find any association between these types of working and lowered levels of stress.

So, what has our study told us? We’ve learned a good deal about the complex relationships between social and biological factors in our lives. And, crucially for policymakers, we can see that it’s particularly important for women with childcare responsibilities to be able to access shorter working hours when they need to. For employers, this isn’t just a matter of logistics and of ensuring a stable and happy workforce – it’s also a major factor in ensuring that workers live longer and healthier lives.

Are Flexible Work Arrangements Associated with Lower Levels of Chronic Stress-Related Biomarkers? A Study of 6025 Employees in the UK Household Longitudinal Study, is research by Tarani Chandola (University of Manchester and UCL), Cara Booker, Meena Kumari and Michaela Benzeval (University of Essex) and is published in Sociology.

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.

 

Does education and job status affect the length of our working lives?

Who is most at risk of leaving work due to poor health? In a major international research project, Ewan Carr from the renEWL team has worked with colleagues at UCL, King’s College and Queen Mary University of London in the UK, INSERM and Paris Descartes University in France and the University of Turku in Finland to find out more about social inequalities and extended working life. Based on information from nearly 100,000 employees from seven studies in four countries, the research found employees with low levels of education or low occupational grade (e.g. unskilled or manual jobs) to be more likely to leave work for health reasons. While past studies have shown there is socioeconomic inequality in the ways that working lives come to an end, few have compared these trends across different countries.

Across Europe, ageing populations have forced governments to look at ways of extending working lives. As people stay healthier for longer, raising the state pension age has become a priority in a number of countries – in the UK this reform has already been implemented.

But this change is likely to be particularly challenging for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who are known to lose both physical and mental ability more quickly as they age.

Planning for later life

There’s a double-bind here for this group. They’re more likely to be unable, through ill health, to continue to work in later life. But they’re also less likely to have the resources they need to keep them out of poverty in retirement.

People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may have contributed less to their pension funds, and so may have to work even if they don’t want to, or if their health makes it difficult for them to do so.

Meanwhile those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are likely to have bigger pension pots but also to have better health, which allows them to work for longer. They have a further advantage in that they are likely to have jobs they enjoy and which have more security – so they’re less likely to be forced into retirement or unemployment.

We wanted to find out more about this: would similar levels of poor health have a disproportionate effect on those who were less well educated, or who had lower-status jobs? If two people had the same health issues but had different social status, would one be more likely than the other to stay in work for longer?

Other studies have looked at these issues, but they had limitations. They tended to focus on single countries – or in some cases on the Nordic countries as a group – and weren’t necessarily applicable elsewhere. They often used things like disability benefit as a measure of work exit, and again these weren’t always the same from one country to another.

Work exit

Previous studies found people at both ends of the occupational ladder were more likely than those in the middle to extend their working lives, but for different reasons. Put bluntly, those at the top chose to continue working; those at the bottom were forced to do so.

We looked at data from seven independent studies in Finland, France, the UK and the USA. Some of these were drawn from representative samples of the whole population, while others looked at specific groups – for instance, the Whitehall II study in the UK followed a large group of civil servants over several decades. All the studies were based on people who were in paid work at around the age of 50. In total, our study covered almost 100,000 people.

We considered two measures of social status – level of education, and level of occupation. We assessed retirement age and route (i.e. whether it was for health reasons or not) using respondents’ own reports of their retirement as well as company and administrative records and benefits information.

Overall,wefound those with lower levels of education were more likely to leave work for health reasons – this effect could be seen for men in all the studies and for women in most. Lower occupational grades were also strongly linked to leaving work for health reasons.

These findings have important implications for policymakers, who usually calculate retirement age by sex but who don’t take into account factors such as family circumstances or social status. Policies which seek to extend working lives for all are likely to place those with lower socioeconomic status at a disadvantage – especially in countries where the benefits system doesn’t do much to help those who must leave because of ill-health. This study underlines a need both for greater flexibility in polices that extend working life and for greater recognition of the barriers faced by those from less privileged backgrounds.

Further information

Occupational and educational inequalities in exit from employment at older ages: evidence from seven prospective cohortsis research by Ewan Carr, Maria Fleischmann, Marcel Goldberg, Diana Kuh, Emily T Murray, Mai Stafford, Stephen Stansfield, Jussi Vahtera, Bowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Marie Zins and Jenny Head. It was first published in the journalOccupational & Environmental Medicine on March 12, 2018.

The studies used in the research were:

British Household Panel Survey https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/bhps

English Longitudinal Study of Ageing http://www.elsa-project.ac.uk/

1946 National Survey of Health and Development http://www.nshd.mrc.ac.uk/

Whitehall II study http://www.ucl.ac.uk/iehc/research/epidemiology-public-health/research/whitehallII

Finnish Public Sector study, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health https://www.ttl.fi/en/

GAZEL cohort http://www.gazel.inserm.fr/en/

Health and Retirement Study http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu/

Having a family – how might the decision affect the length of your working life?

Across the developed world, people are living longer. In response to this, governments are looking for ways to encourage people to work for longer. In the UK, the State Pension age is being raised and future generations will have little choice but to work. But how will the decisions they made earlier in life – whether and when to have a family – affect their later employment prospects? A new study from the RenEWL project by Dr Mai Stafford and colleagues at UCL and Queen Mary University of London has some answers.

Many of the post-war baby boom generation retired before the State Pension age began to rise. But subsequent generations must plan for longer working lives, and government policy needs to find ways to facilitate that.

We know more people are living longer, and we know that our decisions about having a family can affect the likelihood of us staying in work for longer. But we wanted to get a more nuanced view of how family and working lives can interact.

Would those who delayed starting a family until their thirties be more likely to work into their late sixties? How would those who never had children differ from those who did? And how would the prospects of women who took time out of the workplace be affected by that decision as they neared State Pension age?

We looked at data from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) which has followed the lives of more than 5,000 people born within a single week in 1946. Participants have been studied 24 times during their lives from birth, through childhood and adulthood, and most recently when they were aged 68-69 – at which point more than 2,700 people responded. The men in the study reached state pension age at 65; the women at 60.

We found that almost half the men had been continuously married with children and in full-time work since their early twenties. Women’s lives tended to vary more, with the largest group working full-time until their early twenties then taking time out to raise a family before working part-time and then returning to full-time work in their late thirties.

In their early sixties, just over two thirds of women and a third of men were not in paid work.

Women who did work at this age were more likely to be in part-time work, while men were more likely to be in full-time work. By the age of 68-69, just one in five men and one in 10 women were still in paid work.

 Work and family

Those who became fathers in their early twenties and who had jobs were more likely to be in full-time work at age 60-64 than men who remained single and childless. They were also more likely to be in work at age 68-69 than men who had partners and jobs but no children.

When we looked at how the age at which participants had their children affected their later employment, we found this made no difference for men. But women who had children later were more likely to be in full-time work at age 60-64 than those who had them earlier.

Having children early then returning to full-time work after a break, rather than continuous work through the childrearing years, made no difference to women’s later employment prospects.

We considered whether these differences might be driven by earlier health and socioeconomic circumstances that result in different kinds of family-work patterns. The links between work-family patterns and later life work participation remained when we statistically controlled for childhood health, educational attainment and childhood socioeconomic factors.

Why did the age of family formation make a difference? Women who have their children later may still be providing financial support to them in their sixties – though if so we would expect that men who had children later would also be more likely to be in paid employment, and this was not the case.

Women who became mothers later may also have started working later – possibly because they stayed in education longer – and therefore might have accrued less pension entitlement by age 60-64, though we do not think this fully explains the difference because we controlled for educational attainment.

British baby-boomers

So, what can this cohort of British baby-boomers tell us about how family decisions affect later working lives? We found that the timing of having children was related to women’s but not men’s employment in later life.

Both men and women who remained childless, regardless of whether they had a partner, were less likely to be in paid work in their sixties than those who had children.

And both men and women who worked full-time and neither had children nor a partner were also less likely than their peers to be still in paid work after the age of 60, though women in this group who were still working were more likely than men to be working part-time.

Mothers who returned to work were more likely to be in work in their sixties, while becoming a father made no difference to a man’s prospects.

It’s important for policymakers who have an interest in extending our working lives to consider these results. Mothers, and parents more generally, may stay in the work-force in later life if they have access to jobs which allow them to combine family and work. Our study underlines the need for both part-time jobs and flexible working to be available to parents.

Work–family life course patterns and work participation in later life is research by Mai Stafford, Rebecca Lacey, Emily Murray, Ewan Carr, Maria Fleischmann, Stephen Stansfeld, Baowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Jenny Head, Diana Kuh and Anne McMunn and is published in the European Journal of Ageing.

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.