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Low-level workers' higher levels of stress continue after retirement, study finds

Low-level workers' higher levels of stress continue after retirement
REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
The analysis revealed that before retirement the civil servants employed in the lowest-status jobs had, on average, the highest levels of stress. The analysis also found that retirement did not alter that difference in stress levels.

Whether or not your stress levels lessen after retirement is likely to depend on where your pre-retirement job falls on the occupational ladder, according to a British study published online last Friday in the Journals of Gerontology Series B.

People who have low-level, low-status jobs are more likely to experience greater stress around retirement than their co-workers in higher-level positions, the study reports.

The study also found that stress levels tend not to drop for the low-level workers after retirement.

“We wanted to examine the common perception that people at the top of the occupational hierarchy are the most stressed. We actually found the reverse,” said Tarani Chandola, the study’s lead author and a medical sociologist at the University of Manchester, in an interview with ResearchGate News. “Stress, at least in terms of biological stress responses, is higher the lower down the occupational hierarchy you go. What’s more, retirement did not reduce these differences in stress levels, but actually increased them. Retirement was associated with lower stress levels, but only for people at the top of the occupational ladder.”

As Chandola and his co-authors write in their study, their findings “may partly explain the pattern of widening social inequalities in health in early old age.”

Study details

For the study, the researchers analyzed cortisol samples collected before and after retirement from 1,143 participants in the Whitehall II civil servants study, which has been following a large group of London-based British civil servants (two-thirds men, one third women) since 1985 to observe how social position affects health.

The hormone cortisol regulates many processes throughout the body, including how the body responds to stress. Levels of the hormone peak about 30 minutes after awakening in the morning and then gradually decline throughout the day, reaching their lowest levels around bedtime. Stress disrupts that pattern. In particular, it flattens the slope of the daily decline. Flatter slopes are thus considered a key biomarker for stress — and have been associated with an increased risk of several chronic health problems, including diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Cortisol levels were measured in the current study through saliva samples taken from the participants at five points during a typical working day (when their average age was 60) and then during a typical day three to seven years later — after they had retired.

The researchers then looked to see what the daily cortisol slope was, on average, on both of those testing days for the civil servants in three different employment grades: high, middle and low.

Key findings

The analysis revealed that before retirement the civil servants employed in the lowest-status jobs had, on average, the highest levels of stress as indicated by flatter daily cortisol slopes. That finding contradicts the commonly held idea that people with higher-level jobs are under the greatest stress.

The analysis also found — again, contrary to common perception — that retirement did not alter that difference in stress levels. Although retirement was found to be associated overall with steeper (improved) cortisol slopes, a closer look at the data found that those in the low-status jobs tended not to experience that benefit.

Retirement appeared to increase, not narrow, the gap in biological stress levels between the highest- and lowest-level civil servants.

“The fact that [low-level workers’] stress levels did not improve much, at least not as much as those in the top jobs, surprised us,” said Chandola. “This suggests that the poor working conditions are not the only driver of the increased stress levels for those at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy. Rather, other factors such as financial security and adequate pension arrangements may play an important role in determining stress levels in retirement.”

“From other studies, we also know that wealth, financial security, and adequate pension arrangements are also important determinants of stress levels among older adults,” he added. “Retirees from low status jobs tend to have poorer levels of such financial arrangements, which may explain some of the differences between occupational groups that we found.”

Problem may be much greater

This study, like all studies, has its limitations. It analyzed cortisol samples taken on only two days, for example. Those days may not have been "typical" for all of the participants.

Also, the study involved only British civil servants. It’s not clear how transferrable the findings would be to other occupations — and to other countries, such as the United States, where post-retirement economic and social safety nets differ from those in Great Britain.

In Britain, “civil servants tend to have much better working conditions than workers in general,” Chandola acknowledged.

Yet, he added, “the fact that we were able to find such an association between stress and occupational status in this relatively privileged group of workers suggests the problem is much greater in other occupations, where working conditions for people in low status jobs are much tougher.”

How could the inequities suggested by this study be corrected?

“While most studies on reducing stress focus on individual behavioral changes such as physical activity, diet, and meditation, what this study shows is that wider social determinants such as occupations and pensions are also important,” Chandola said. “Changing occupational imbalances such as making pension arrangements fairer for all workers may be an important way to correct the imbalance.”

FMI:  You can read the study in full at the Journals of Gerontology Series B’s website.

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