Many of us believe that we’ll finally be able to relax once we retire. It’s understandable to hang a lot of hopes on this phase of life. It’s easy to imagine how sweet, and stress-free, life could be if we didn’t have to go to work. Well, the problem with this image is that another important factor goes alongside it – in order to really be stress-free, we’d need to have plenty of money.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case during retirement. And that changes how people experience this stage of life. It turns out that, in reality, retirement actually widens socioeconomic inequalities when it comes to stress and health. Retirement does reduce stress for some workers, but it doesn’t make life easier for everyone.
Retirement might reduce stress ... but only for workers who finish their careers with lots of money.
Stress Levels, and Health, Vary Widely During Our Working Years
Previous studies have found significant differentials, in terms of both health and stress, when data for workers is analyzed by socioeconomic status (SES). Here are a few key facts that demonstrate and detail the correlation between SES, work, health, and stress:
- Job strain is associated with higher blood pressure in men of low SES.
- Mandatory and voluntary overtime are correlated with fatigue and sleep deprivation and are also associated with work-related accidents among blue collar workers.
- Higher levels of stress and negative mood are associated with gender harassment of professional women by higher level men.
- Low decision control coupled with high demands are predictors of heart disease among white collar workers.
- Job dissatisfaction rates are higher, as is job-related stress, among workers with more frequent overtime requirements, little managerial support, and less work flexibility. (These conditions are more common for lower-wage and part-time work.)
Many of the factors that contribute to work-related stress and health problems are more commonly experienced by lower-wage workers. These jobs are more likely to come with inflexible scheduling demands, overtime requirements, fewer health benefits, and more health hazards.
Additionally, folks with lower SES generally have more financial strains and concerns, which is a serious stressor in its own right. When all of these factors are considered in totality, it’s not hard to understand why workers with lower SES are generally more stressed than others.
The Stress And Health Gap May Widen During Retirement
These variances in stress and health levels among workers persist during retirement. In fact, the differential may even become more significant, according to a new paper published in the Journals of Gerontology last month and featured by Science Daily.
Researchers analyzed data from the London-based Whitehall II civil servants study, which was completed by 1,143 respondents with an average age of 60. Cortisol levels were analyzed across five samples collected throughout the day. Researchers wanted to measure stress patterns in workers, and cortisol, often called the stress hormone, provides evidence. Cortisol levels also tie in with health and wellness in many key ways.
“Increased cortisol, caused by chronic stress can be responsible for decreased immune functioning, an increase in weight gain, difficulty losing weight and increased blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease,” wrote Gail Innis in her article Understanding Cortisol; The Stress Hormone. “Too much cortisol for a sustained period of time can actually harm the brain and impair thinking, memory and learning. It is not unusual to have difficulty thinking and processing, ‘going blank’ when cortisol is interfering with brain activity.”
Measuring cortisol levels of workers and retirees revealed a great deal about who’s under the most stress, when, and why. Researchers found that retirement was associated with lower stress levels at first. Diurnal cortisol slopes were steeper among recent retirees than they were among folks who were still working. However, upon closer examination, they realized that the impact was confined to those in high status jobs. Workers in lower status jobs had flatter diurnal cortisol slopes. Overall, retirement was found to actually increase the differences in stress levels between folks of different SES. The gap, in terms of stress, is even wider in retirement than during working years.
Many of us imagine retirement as a time of waning stress. However, socioeconomic factors play a major role in how individuals experience this time period.
“It may seem counter-intuitive that stopping low status work which may be stressful does not reduce biological levels of stress,” Tarani Chandola, lead author of the study, told Science Daily. “This may be because workers who retire from low status jobs often face financial and other pressures in retirement. This study suggests that people’s stress levels are not just determined by immediate circumstances, but by long run factors over the course of their lives.”
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