Retirement Lowers Stress But Only For Those Retiring From Executive Jobs Interview with:

Tarani Chandola
Professor of Medical Sociology
Social Statistics Disciplinary Area of the School of Social Sciences
University of Manchester What is the background for this study?

Response: We (the authors) were particularly interested in examining evidence for the common perception that people at the top of the occupational hierarchy are the most stressed. And also what happens to people’s stress levels when they retire. We had assumed that people with poorer quality work to have decreased levels of stress when they retired. There have been other studies on this topic before, but none that have used salivary cortisol to measure physiological stress responses. We analysed changes in people’s stress levels before and after retirement, in a follow up study of over 1,000 older workers in the British civil service. Stress levels were measured by taking salivary cortisol samples across the day, from awakening until bedtime. What are the main findings?

Response: We actually found the reverse- the levels of stress, at least in terms of biological stress responses, is higher the lower down the occupational hierarchy you go. This result is actually in line from previous studies. What is new is also finding that retirement did not reduce these differences between occupational groups, but actually increased differences in stress levels. Retirement was associated with lower stress levels, but only for people at the top of the occupational ladder. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Firstly, the myth of executive stress is just a myth. Stress levels are actually higher among lower status workers. Furthermore, we were expecting the occupational status differences in stress to reduce after retirement. The fact that they actually increased surprised us. We thought that if poor working conditions were the main driver of higher levels of stress among low status civil servants, once they retired and stopped working in those jobs, their stress levels would improve. Actually, we found that their stress levels did not improve much, at least not as much as those in the top jobs. 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, but other factors such as financial security and adequate pension arrangements may play an important role in determining stress levels in retirement. Being financially secure in retirement is an important factor in stress levels, which is why many people seek financial advice from groups such as Key, who aim to provide people with financial ease of mind once they retire. Giving them peace of mind and the opportunity to have a successful rebrand of themselves while allowing them to enjoy their retirement without the worry of money. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: The next research steps are to find out how we change a job to reduce stress levels. High levels of cortisol are associated with a whole range of health problems, so it is in the best interests of both employers and workers to reduce levels of stress in the workplace. However, changing working conditions is not easy, and many stressful jobs result in workers leaving their employment. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: While most studies on reducing stress focusses on individual behavioural 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. Changing occupational imbalances such as making pension arrangements fairer for all workers may be an important way to correct the imbalance.

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Tarani Chandola, Patrick Rouxel, Michael G. Marmot, Meena Kumari. Retirement and Socioeconomic Differences in Diurnal Cortisol: Longitudinal Evidence From a Cohort of British Civil Servants. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 2017; DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbx058

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2017 by Marie Benz MD FAAD