Tag Archives: Stress

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.

Does caring for others damage your mental health?

This blog is dedicated to the memory of the paper’s lead author, the luminary Allison Milner, whose recent death has left the world a poorer place.

Health work and caring make up a significant proportion of jobs in high-income countries – but how does the mental health of people in those jobs compare with others? And how does the mental health of those in higher-status medical jobs compare with that of those in lower-skilled and lower-paid caring jobs? Tania King and colleagues* at the University of Melbourne turned to a major Australian longitudinal study for answers.

The health and social care workforce is very diverse, encompassing both those with the highest levels of skill and salary and those with some of the lowest. Yet all those workers have one thing in common: they work primarily in jobs which involve caring for others.

This means the emotional demands of the job are high: these workers often experience threats of or actual violence, for instance, and tend to have low levels of control over their work. This has been shown to lead to burnout, high levels of sickness absence and high job turnover.

We used the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, a nationally representative study which has collected information from more than 13,000 people each year since 2001, to look at three questions:

  • Are job conditions in health and care more stressful than those in other sectors?
  • Do job stressors affect the health of health and care workers more than they affect others?
  • If health and care workers do suffer more than others, is that linked to the type of people who tend to go into that type of work and how they react to stress?

On the first question, we found that overall the working conditions of those in caring and support work jobs – the lower-paid, lower-skilled end of the sector – were worse than those in higher-status medical jobs, with care workers reporting a higher number of stress factors such as high demands, lack of control, job insecurity and perceived unfairness of pay.

Then we looked at workers’ mental health, using a widely recognised scale which assesses respondents’ symptoms of depression and anxiety in the past four weeks, along with more positive feelings such as calmness and happiness.

We found carers and support workers had poorer mental health scores than health workers. They also scored worse when compared to other workers who were not in health, care or other people-facing roles.

Other human service workers, such as hospitality workers, sales staff and personal assistants had worse mental health than those in roles which involved less personal contact. Of the four groups – carers, health workers, human service workers and others – carers had the worst mental health and health workers had the best.

Mental health effects

What were the biggest stress factors for the different groups? We found job insecurity had the greatest effect on all of them. But there were differences, too: In human service jobs, fairness of pay was the second-biggest factor, while in health care professions low control was associated with the second largest decline in mental health.

But we also found differences in the ways in which different groups reacted to stress: When carers and support workers reported three or more different stress factors, that resulted in a three-point decline on the mental health scale when compared to those reporting none. But when health care workers reported three or more stress factors that was associated with a lower, 2.65 point, decline in mental health.

Low-skilled is high-stress?

Our results suggest – perhaps surprisingly, given popular narratives about the stress suffered by senior executives – that lower skilled carers and support workers are more likely to be exposed to stress at work than higher skilled health workers such as doctors and nurses. They also have poorer mental health and a greater adverse reaction to stress.

There is other evidence to show low-income, less-educated workers suffer more from work stress. But our analysis adds another factor – the care workforce we looked at are mainly women with lower incomes and less education than either health workers or our reference group of other workers.

And even when this largely-female, low-status group of carers reports no stress factors at work, its mental health is worse than that of other workers – we found a three-point difference on the mental health scale between carers and either health staff or our reference category of non-health, non-people-facing staff.

Hence, people with lower levels of mental health face an accumulation of health hazards. They are likely to find themselves in stressful jobs which propel them into even worse mental health.

And so to our final question – is the poor mental health of care workers somehow intrinsic to them as people? Our methods enabled us to control for stable (time-invariant) characteristics such as gender, personality or country of birth (called within person effects), as well as things which might change over time, such as age, income and type of employment. The results showed that even after controlling for within person effects, as well as these other factors such as age and income, being exposed to these stress factors had a negative effect on the mental health of care workers.

We concluded that – while it’s important to note that health workers, too, experienced stress and poor mental health – low-quality working environments has a clear effect on the poorer outcomes of carers and support workers.

The impact of these environments does not stop with those who work in them:  this may also have knock-on effects on the quality of care provided. Earlier studieshave shown factors such as anxiety, stress and burnout  among healthcare workers are linked with poorer patient safety, too.

There is a dire need for more investigation into working conditions among health and human service workers. Such research could be critical in informing workplace design, particularly as the number of people employed as health and human service continues to grow. For that workforce to be sustainable, jobs need to be structured to promote health and productivity as well as a high quality of care.

The mental health impacts of health and human service work: Longitudinal evidence about differential exposure and susceptibility using 16 waves of cohort data, by Allison Milner, Tania L. King and Anne Kavanagh, was published in Preventive Medicine Reports, vol 14, June 2019.

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.

Woman worker

Anti-social working hours: Are they making women depressed?

The rise of globalisation and the 24/7 economy are fuelling demands for people to work long hours and weekends.  But what’s the evidence about how these ways of working link with depression? Gill Weston and colleagues from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL and Queen Mary University of London found such working conditions are linked to poorer mental health in women. 

Across the globe, the effects of overwork are becoming apparent.  In eastern Asian countries the risk of death due to overwork has increased.  In the UK, work-related stress accounts for millions of lost working days every year.  

Within the EU, a significant proportion of people have to work unsociable hours – with nearly a quarter working most Saturdays and a third working at least one Sunday a month.  But despite this, there isn’t much clear evidence about the links between work patterns and mental health. 

Some studies have found a connection between unsociable work patterns and depression.  But many of the studies only focused on men, some only looked at specific types of worker or workplaces and few took account of work conditions such as whether workers had any control over how fast they worked.  

To address these gaps, we set out to look for links between long or irregular hours and depression using a large nationally representative sample of working men and women in the UK.  We particularly wanted to look at whether there were differences between men and women because research has shown that work is organised, experienced and rewarded differently for men and women, and because men and women react differently to overwork and time pressure. 

We used data from Understanding Society, which surveys people living in 40,000 households across the UK.  In particular we focused on information about working hours, weekend working and working conditions collected from 11,215 working men and 12,188 working women between 2010 and 2012.  They had completed a questionnaire designed to study levels of psychological distress.

Who works the most? 

We found men tended to work longer hours in paid work than women, and having children affected men’s and women’s work patterns in different ways: while mothers tended to work fewer hours than women without children, fathers tended to work more hours than men without children.  

Two thirds of all men worked weekends, compared with half of all women.  Those who worked all or most weekends were more likely to be in low skilled work and to be less satisfied with their job and their earnings than those who only worked Monday to Friday or some weekends 

Which workers have the most depressive symptoms? 

Women in general are more likely to be depressed than men, and this was no different in our study. 

Independent of their working patterns, we also found that workers with the most depressive symptoms were older, smokers, on lower incomes, in physically demanding jobs, and who were dissatisfied at work. 

Are long and irregular hours linked to depression? 

Taking these findings and other factors into account, when we looked at the mental health effects of work patterns on men and on women, the results were striking: while there was little or no difference in depressive symptoms between men who worked long hours and those who did not, this was not the case for women.   

Those women who worked 55 hours or more per week had a higher risk of depression than women working a standard 35-40 hour week.   

Similarly weekend working showed differences for men and women.  Compared to workers who only worked on weekdays, men who worked weekends also had a greater number of depressive symptoms, but only if they had little control at work or were dissatisfied with work.  Whereas for women,  regardless of their control or satisfaction, working most or all weekends was linked to more depressive symptoms. 

Why might women suffer more than men while working these antisocial hours?  

There might be a number of reasons why women might be more affected than men: 

  • Women who work long hours are in a minority – just four per cent of them in our sample worked 55 hours or more per week. This may place them under additional pressure. 
  • Women working longer hours tend to be in male-dominated occupations, and this may also contribute to stress. 
  • Women working weekends tend to be concentrated in low-paid service sector jobs, which have been linked to higher levels of depression. 
  • Many women face the additional burden of doing a larger share of domestic labour than men, leading to extensive total work hours, added time pressures or overwhelming responsibilities.  

What should be done about these risks? 

Our findings should encourage employers and policy-makers to think about how to reduce the burdens and increase support for women who work long or irregular hours – without restricting their ability to work when they wish to.  More sympathetic working practices could bring benefits both for workers and for employers – of both sexes. 

Long work hours, weekend working and depressive symptoms in men and women: Findings from a UK population-based study by Gill Weston, Afshin Zilanawala, Elizabeth Webb, Livia Carvalho, and Anne McMunn is published in the  Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which is published by the BMJ. 

Working with a long-term illness – does employment status make a difference?

Across the developed world, a growing share of the population suffers from chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or heart problems – in the EU, around 45 per cent of those aged 55-64 had such a disease in 2015. And that affects their ability to work: just half of those with chronic illnesses are employed, compared to three quarters of those without. But how do the self-employed cope with such conditions, when compared with those in employment? Maria Fleischmann and colleagues from the RenEWL project find these differences in work status can make a major difference.

We know that when people become chronically ill, changes in their working conditions can help them to continue working. And we also know that good working conditions – being able to control how you use your time and how you do your job, whether you make the decisions and whether you feel valued, for instance – can help all of us to stay in paid work for longer.

And of course, if you become ill you’re more likely to feel the need to take time off or maybe to give up work altogether. We wanted to compare how the employed and the self-employed adjust their working conditions when facing a diagnosis of chronic disease.

Existing research tells us that many older people work for employers, and have to ask for their approval when it comes to making adjustments to their working conditions. The self-employed, meanwhile, are much more able to make their own decisions and tend to feel they have more control over their working lives.

We looked at people’s ability to control their work: physical demands, working hours, psychological demands such as how fast they had to work, and social aspects such as whether they felt valued.

And we had a great source of data for this – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a total of almost 9,000 over-50s since 2002.

From that group we were able to find and study 1389 participants who reported no chronic diseases when they were interviewed in 2004-5 – the second wave of interviews – and who were in work.  We were then able to look at what happened to them before the seventh wave of interviews, in 2013-14.

A little over 40 per cent of our sample were in managerial or professional occupations, a quarter in intermediate occupations, and almost 30 per cent in routine and manual occupations.

After diagnosis

At each interview, respondents were asked whether they had been diagnosed by a doctor with lung disease, asthma, arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes or high blood sugar, stroke or heart problems.

During the study period 510 of the 1389 sample members were newly diagnosed with one of those conditions. We were able to look at how they fared at work for four years after that, and we found some striking differences between how the employed and the self-employed seemed to have been treated.

The physical demands of our participants’ jobs were pretty similar before their diagnosis, for instance. But afterwards significant numbers of those who were employed said that those demands had actually increased when they were diagnosed. The self-employed, meanwhile, told us the opposite had happened to them – they reported significantly lower physical demands at work immediately after diagnosis. This effect continued for some time, though it grew less pronounced.

How could that be? We think maybe the increase in physical demands among the employed could be due to perception – similar demands might be perceived as more strenuous by the chronically ill. The self-employed, meanwhile, have more freedom to adjust those demands when they feel they need to.

The self-employed reported that their working hours dropped by an average of 2.8 hours per week on diagnosis, while those who were employed did not see a change. This effect was not statistically significant, though.

Employees found that their level of autonomy at work also dropped marginally, while for the self-employed there was no significant change. We did not find any major changes in psychological or social conditions in either group.

So, what did we learn? Essentially, that improvements in working conditions after diagnosis of chronic illness were restricted to the self-employed. So employers may need to ask themselves some hard questions – do they want to hold on to workers who become unwell? If they do, then they should consider the levels of flexibility they offer, and they should think about making adjustments for those workers if they don’t want to lose them.

In an ageing society, older people are expected to work ever longer and therefore to remain at work even when they begin to suffer from health problems. Our findings should also encourage policy-makers and governments to think about how chronically ill older adults are treated at work.

Changes in autonomy, job demands and working hours after diagnosis of chronic disease: a comparison of employed and self-employed older persons using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA)by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Baowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Stephen A Stansfeld, Mai Stafford and Jenny Head, is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

 

Work stress and ill health – what’s the link?

Lots of studies have suggested stress can be a cause of ill health – and that leads to people ceasing to work before they reach retirement age. But most have offered only a snapshot on the issue. Now a new analysis of data from a major panel study by José Ignacio CuitúnCoronado and Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester has shed new light on how work stress can affect an employee’s health over a longer period.

Many animals have the ability to adapt to environmental changes and pressures so that they’re better prepared the next time they happen. Bears can put on fat as winter approaches, for instance, to help them stave off hunger and stay warm.

And human beings can do this too. Stressful situations trigger chemical responses which can help to give us extra resources when things are tough. Our neuroendocrine systems, for instance, trigger hormonal responses which enhance our physical performance when we need it most.

But these valuable systems can have a downside. In our research, we wanted to look at how repeated exposure to stressful situations might contribute to health problems, particularly in people nearing the end of their working lives. We call this stress-induced effect ‘Allostatic Load’ – the wear and tear” on the body that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress because of fluctuating hormonal responses.

Given that many governments are looking for ways to extend working lives, there’s particular interest in finding out how stress can affect the health of older workers.We were able to tap into a rich source of information – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a representative sample of almost 10,000 over50s since 2002.

These participants have been interviewed regularly and one of the things they’ve been asked to report is whether they’ve experienced a sense of imbalance between the effort they put into their jobs and the rewards they get out.

Health testing

This gave us a sample of 2663 older adults, all over 50 and living in England, who’d reported these feelings at least once and who’d been assessed as having had an adverse reaction to them. We wanted to know whether repeated episodes had a bigger effect than just one, and whether the effect would be just as strong for past episodes as it was for more recent ones.

Between 2004-5 and 2014-16 the group were asked about stress at work, but they also underwent physical tests to see how the various systems in their bodies were bearing up.

They were visited by nurses who carried out a battery of tests including taking hair samples to assess levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, carrying out blood pressure checks to provide information on their cardio-vascular systems, white blood cell counts to assess their immune systems and cholesterol checks on their metabolic systems. Participants also had measurements taken of their waist to height ratios – a good indicator of coronary heart disease risk factors.

Overall, we found the more occasions of work-stress a participant had reported, the greater their ‘Allostatic Load’ index – that is, the greater the amount of biological wear and tear. Moreover, the evidence suggests that employees who had experienced stress more recently (towards the end of their working career)had higher levels of health risk when compared to those who had experienced it earlier in their careers.

This suggests there is an association between repeated reports of stress at work and biological stress mechanisms, which in turn could lead to stress-related disorders such as coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes or depression. This also suggests that previous cross-sectional studies which reported small or inconsistent associations may have suffered because they were only measuring one effect at one time.

Work-related stress is one of the reasons for labour market exit – and our findings would suggest that earlier, snapshot studies may have underestimated the true effect of work-related stress on health over a lifetime.

As this is an observational study, it is not possible tomake any causal claims. Also, there may be other factors that we have not taken into account that may explain the association between stress and disease risk. For example, sleep problems may be relevant – though they may also be part of the journey from stress to ill-health.

But equally it is possible that cumulative exposure to work stress is resulting in damage to employees’ physical health, which is then leading to disability and an early exit from the world of work. So, if we want to extend working lives then reducing work-related stress could be one of the keys to achieving that goal.

Allostatic Load and Effort-Reward Imbalance: Associations over the Working-Career, by José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado, Tarani Chandola and Andrew Steptoe, is published in the International Journal of
Environmental Reasearch and Public Health
.

Never too early to intervene to get us working longer

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

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

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

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

Increasing psychological support

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

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

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

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

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

55-year survey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children’s mental health

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

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

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

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

 

A question of support: working longer and what works

As more of us work for longer, it’s important to recognise the needs of older workers: and that includes the fact that as we age we are more likely to suffer from long-term illnesses. To what extent do our working conditions affect our decisions about whether or not to continue in a job despite having a chronic disease? Maria Fleischmann, research associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, has been asking what might help to prolong working life for older people. Could factors such as having supportive colleagues and managers, or a clear understanding of who does what, make a difference?

There is strong evidence that people with long-term illnesses leave work early. While three quarters of healthy European 50-somethings have jobs, the figure from those with chronic disease is much lower. Among those with one condition such as diabetes or heart disease, the employment level is around 70 per cent – and for those with two or more that drops to around 50 per cent. Conversely, those who are able to stay well are significantly more likely to continue working beyond pensionable age.

As our working lives grow longer, it’s important to acknowledge that older workers with chronic diseases may have different needs from those who are well – they may not be able to work such long hours, for instance.

So, what are the factors that can make a difference? We know, for instance, that people are likely to remain in work for longer if they have a high level of control over their own hours. Shift workers, on the other hand, are more likely both to become unwell and to leave work early.

Deciding to stay on at work

But what about the factors that are harder to see? What about a worker’s sense of his or her own job stability, or of how harmonious the relationships are between co-workers? Does it help if an employee feels he or she generally knows who does what, or how to respond to a given situation? These types of factors – collectively known as ‘psychosocial factors’ – are also believed to affect peoples’ decisions about whether to stay on at work.

We used data from the Whitehall II study, which has been following the lives, work histories and health experiences of just over 10,000 London-based civil servants since the mid-1980s, when they were all aged 35-55. We looked at the participants in mid-life, around 14 years before retirement age, to see how factors such as levels of autonomy and of support from supervisors or co-workers might affect their decisions if they became ill with diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke or malignant cancer.

And we found that while good ‘psycho-social’ working conditions were helpful generally in supporting workers to stay on in their jobs, they didn’t appear to make any extra difference for those who became ill.

The participants in the Whitehall II study were asked questions such as: ‘Do you have to do the same thing over and over again?’ and ‘Do you have a choice in deciding how to do your work?’ They were also asked whether they felt they had good support from colleagues and superiors and how demanding they felt their job was. They were also asked to describe their level of education, their mental health and whether they had a partner who worked.

We were able to use their answers to assess whether these factors made a difference when they developed illnesses later in life.

Chronic illness

We could see that six out of 10 participants left work between the first phase of the study in 1985 and the last one used for this study, in 2007-9. During the same period the proportion suffering from chronic illness had increased from less than two per cent to almost 30 per cent.

So why had they left, and how might those ‘psychosocial’ working conditions have affected those decisions?

Among the whole group of participants, we found clear evidence that those who felt they had reasons to be happy in their work were more likely to stay on. Specifically, those who felt they were using a wide range of job skills – known as skill discretion – and those who felt they had good social support at work were more likely to stay on for longer.

However, we did not find evidence that those ‘psychosocial’ factors would make more of a difference in whether or not a worker stayed on if he or she were chronically unwell. Or rather, good working conditions were equally important for workers both ill and well.

So, we know that good social and psychological conditions at work are likely to be helpful in keeping employees at work as their careers near their end. And we know that chronic illness is a major reason why people leave work early. But from our study, we cannot say that such good working practices will be a particular deciding factor for those who become unwell.

How and why people leave work

There were some interesting factors in our results: first, we were able to look at the different ways in which people left their jobs, and the reasons why they did so. So those who used a wide range of skills had a reduced risk of leaving work earlier through retirement or ill-health, but this was not related to the risk of leaving work earlier through unemployment; while those who had good social support had a reduced risk of leaving earlier through ill health or unemployment, but not so much when we looked at leaving earlier through retirement.

And while previous studies had tended to measure working conditions at the time of leaving, ours looked at those conditions several years beforehand.

There is certainly scope for more detailed research on this issue – and there is plenty of reason for both researchers and policy advisors to continue to focus on how employers can help chronically ill workers to stay in their jobs.

Can favourable psychosocial working conditions in midlife moderate the risk of work exit for chronically ill workers? A 20-year follow-up of the Whitehall II study is research by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Stephen A Stansfeld, Baowen Xue and Jenny Head. It is published in the BMJ Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and is part of the renEWL project on Extended Working Lives.

Unretirement: can it be a positive story for all?

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

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

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

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

What motivates unretirement?

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

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

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

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

Why retire and then unretire?

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

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

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

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

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

Does everybody get to unretire if they want to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Scott Lewis

Woman warehouse worker

Out of work and overweight: Think again.

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

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

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

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

Working age BMI

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

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

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

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

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

Quantitative evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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