Most of us dream of a stress-free retirement. Sure, we might have to put up with some stress now, but it will all be worth it after we can kick back for the rest of our lives. The stress we take on now will surely pay off and disappear later, right?
Well, it seems like this is only partly true if you are a low-level employee.
A study of stress levels in both high- and low-level workers showed that low-level employees not only endure higher stress levels during their period of employment, but also see lower reductions in stress levels after retirement than their high level counterparts.
The study, by Tarani Chandola, was undertaken in Britain by recording the levels of cortisol in the saliva of 1143 civil service workers. The civil service was selected for its hierarchical structure and general standardization of work conditions throughout. Making conclusions about rank and conditions easier to draw than if the study was done in, say, online writing.
Despite expectations, workers at the top showed fewer biological signs of stress than those at the bottom while employed; but the researchers were more shocked to find that stress levels failed to decrease at the same rate after retirement for high- and low-level workers. The differences between the respective stress levels of the workers was higher after retirement than it was while they were working, with high-level workers seeing larger reductions in their already lower stress levels than their counterparts.
Why is this a problem?
High levels of the stress hormone are associated with poor sleep, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Because of these associations, this study suggests that workplace conditions may have a tremendous effect on health later in life. This difference in stress hormone becomes a problem of health care expenses, and the ability to enjoy life after working.
What might be the direct cause?
Now, correlation is not proof of causation, but it can hint to a limited connection. It is known that stress levels of older adults are heavily influenced by “wealth, financial security, and adequate pension arrangements”. Considering that lower level workers are likely going to be the least well-off in all of these areas, it is less surprising that work stress will carry over into retirement for these workers.
Now, while this study was done with civil workers in Britain, the basic finding is applicable to workplaces the world over. As the lead researcher noted, “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.”
Stress from work sticks around. Not only after quitting time, but after years of retirement for some of us. This discrepancy shows us that health can be influenced for years by socioeconomic factors, and that the effects of inequality can go far beyond mere matters of money.
Maybe it's time for a new job?