Life is less stressful after retirement, but only for those at the top

People in low-level jobs experience more stress than their superiors, and the gap gets even wider after they retire.

You might expect people at the top of the corporate hierarchy to have more stress than those at the bottom, but it’s actually the other way around. Considering the many health risks associated with stress, that’s no small burden. And retirement offers little relief. A new study of British civil servants shows those in high-level positions experienced a drop in the stress hormone cortisol when they stopped working, while retirees who'd had low-level jobs saw little change. We spoke with medical sociologist Tarani Chandola about these findings.

ResearchGate: What motivated this study, and what did you find?

Tarani Chandola: 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. 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.

RG: How did you determine this?

Chandola: 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.

RG: Why look at civil servants?

Chandola: The civil service is very hierarchical, so is a perfect set up for looking at occupational differences. Also, civil servants tend to have much better working conditions than workers in general. 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.

RG: Did your results surprise you?

Chandola: Yes, we thought that if poor working conditions were the main driver of higher levels of stress among low status civil servants, once people retired and stopped working in those jobs, their stress levels would improve. The fact that their stress levels did not improve much, at least not as much as those in the top jobs, surprised us. 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. 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.

RG: What implications does higher stress have for retirees?

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

RG: Is there any way to correct this imbalance?

Chandola: 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. Changing occupational imbalances such as making pension arrangements fairer for all workers may be an important way to correct the imbalance.

Featured image courtesy of Søren Astrup Jørgensen.