Retiring could be a stressful life event or a welcome relief, depending on the individual and the circumstances. A recent study of government workers tries to illuminate the impact of retirement on mental health.
The researchers examined longitudinal data from the Whitehall II cohort study, a study of 10,308 civil servants living in London. Participants completed interviews, sometimes coupled with a clinical exam, every two or three years beginning at age 35 to 55. The sample for this study was composed of 4,751 individuals who left work to retire (70% men; average retirement age 60.5 years). Participants had completed mental health measures both before and after retirement, and the study excluded those who retired due to health problems. Mental health was measured with a 30-item questionnaire that assessed depression, anxiety, sleep, and social functioning. In addition, participants reported psychosocial working conditions, including job demands, decision authority (level of control over how work is done), skill discretion (such as repetitiveness of job vs. ability to do a variety of tasks), and social support. High decision authority, skill discretion, and social support are considered favorable, while high job demands are unfavorable.
The study found that retirement was positive for mental health, especially for those with poorer working conditions. Mental health substantially improved at the time of retirement for up to three years, and the improvements were maintained over the long-term (up to 16 years post-retirement). There were differences in mental health gains depending on psychosocial job conditions. Prior to retirement, persons with higher job demands, as well as persons with lower social support at work, had worse mental health. Upon retirement, these individuals had the biggest improvements in mental health. In addition, persons with lower levels of decision authority at work experienced greater mental health improvements upon retirement than those with higher levels of decision authority.
Based on the results, the researchers stated that occupational interventions designed to improve working conditions could be used to improve mental health among workers prior to retirement. This might also result in lower health care costs.
Want to keep up with recent research that’s relevant to aging services? Use the form below to subscribe to our monthly InvestigAge email.
Fleischmann M, Xue B, Head J. Mental health before and after retirement—assessing the relevance of psychosocial working conditions: The Whitehall II Prospective Study of British Civil Servants. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, (2020); 75(2):403-13.