Retirement marks a widening stress gap between low-level workers and those at the top

Many health risks are associated with stress. Professor Tarani Chandola’s research study on social inequalities, retirement and stress puts a focus on social imbalances that extend beyond working conditions.

Tell us about your research in this area

There is a common perception that people at the top of the occupational hierarchy are the most stressed. We actually found the reverse. Stress, at least in terms of biological stress responses, is higher the lower down the occupational hierarchy you go. Retirement did not reduce these differences in stress levels, but actually increased them.

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. We measured stress levels by taking salivary cortisol samples across the day, from awakening until bedtime.

Why did your research focus on civil servants?

The civil service is hierarchical, which was useful for researching occupational differences. Civil servants also tend to have much better working conditions than workers in general. Finding such an association between stress and occupational status in this relatively privileged group suggests the problem is much greater in other occupations, where working conditions for people in low-status jobs are far tougher.

Were you surprised by your research results?

Yes, the fact that low-level workers’ stress levels did not improve upon retirement as much as those in the top jobs was a surprise. We thought poor working conditions were the main driver of higher levels of stress among low-status civil servants, and once people retired and stopped working in those jobs, their stress levels would improve. 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.

“Changing occupational imbalances...may be an important way to correct these social inequalities and their impact on health.”

What do your findings mean for retirees?

Higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, are associated with poor sleep, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and a range of metabolic processes that increase the risk of diabetes and obesity.

Most studies on reducing stress focus on individual behavioural changes such as physical activity, diet and meditation. Our study shows that wider social determinants, such as occupations and pensions, are also key. Changing occupational imbalances, such as making pension arrangements fairer for all workers, may be an important way to correct these social inequalities and their impact on health.

The Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research (CMI) is a centre for excellence in quantitative social science. It offers innovative and rigorous empirical answers to important contemporary social and political questions and empowers others to do the same. CMI's research environment is highly interdisciplinary and combines scholars from across the social sciences.

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