Work and Health

Is work a source of stress – or good for our health? Does the type of work matter? Should we be looking to bring forward or delay retirement?

What is work?

Work is an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical or mental effort to do, usually for money. That’s the Cambridge English Dictionary’s definition.

Of course people who, for instance, do homework, housework or act as unpaid carers are also undertaking work. However the main focus of this article is on work as paid employment.

Is work a source of stress?

Stress at work is a sad reality for some people. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported 440,000 cases of work related stress, depression and anxiety in the UK in 2014/2015 - resulting in 9.9 million working days lost. Workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support, were the main work factors cited.

As pension ages change, having to work longer may also be a source of stress for some people although this doesn’t seem to have been researched yet.

Is work good for health?

Most studies over the years have suggested that, in general, work is good for our mental and physical health – whereas being unemployed is bad for our health. This has led the Royal College of Psychiatrists to conclude:

‘There is now plenty of compelling evidence that paid or unpaid work is generally good for the mental and physical health and wellbeing of the majority of people.  Returning to or getting into work actually helps people to recover from a period of mental ill-health. 

Conversely people who are unemployed or workless have poorer health than their employed counterparts.  Unemployed people visit their GP more, are more likely to be admitted to hospital and have higher death rates.’ 

This is probably not very surprising. Where employment is the norm work meets a range of important psychosocial needs (i.e. a combination of psychological and social needs) and is often important for our sense of individual identity, social role and status. As Professor Kim Burton explains,

‘Work defines us. It gives people structure to their lives. Take that away and people lose their interaction with friends and colleagues, the mental stimulus, the daily activity. Worklessness is both a mental and physical decommissioning.’

The harmful effects of unemployment on the mental health of spouses may also have been underestimated, according to a German study published in 2013.

Are there exceptions? 

Some types of work or working conditions are not so positive for health. These include:

  • Work which is physically hazardous, such as work with toxic chemicals and inadequate safety measures in place
  • Work in an unusually stressful work situation (such as with a bullying boss or hostile co-workers) 
  • Possibly working night shifts (although more research is needed here)
  • Possibly insecure employment, according to a 2015 review of the research   - although a 2013 review saw the effect as being more modest

Other factors, such as status, personality and factors outside work (like care commitments) are also likely to make a difference to how far work influences our health at an individual level. There’s also the question of how we see the work that we do. Writing over two thousand years ago the Chinese philosopher Confucius observed, ‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.’

Should we be looking to bring forward or delay retirement?

Our review of the evidence suggests that: 

  • Early retirement can you give you a short term ‘holiday’ boost but doesn’t seem to have any long term health benefits – while retiring at 55 or earlier could even be a health risk.
  • If you retire at the same time as most other people and if retirement is your choice there’s unlikely to be any health risk.
  • What you do after you retire is particularly important. Suddenly stopping all work increases the risk to your health. However, carrying on with some form of part time paid or voluntary work, and staying physically, socially and mentally active all tend to be good for your health. 

NB A number of studies have suggested that volunteering (i.e. voluntary work) has health benefits. However, one 2014 study suggests it is the personality of the volunteer rather than the volunteering which has the health benefits i.e. there are similar personality profiles for individuals who volunteer and those who have better health outcomes. Both groups have higher levels of extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness.Further research is needed here.  

What if employment isn’t feasible? 

This can be a particular challenge, for example for people who are made redundant in their fifties or early sixties and can’t then find another job – particularly as the age at which the State Pension is payable is getting older.   

Fortunately, many factors affect our health. As we report elsewhere a healthy diet, exercising your mind and body, not smoking, drinking in moderation, socialising and a sense of purpose can all help. Unless there is a serious health issue, these are all feasible whether we are employed or unemployed. Voluntary work, sport, crafts, study, faith groups, clubs and societies are just some of the options available that can provide some of the psychosocial benefits that paid work normally provides. 

In addition a review of the evidence, published in 2005, found that factors such as levels of social support appear to counter the harmful effects of unemployment. The review also noted, ‘Those who are unemployed but have more positive and goal-oriented outlooks fare better.’ As concentration camp survivor, neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl commented, ‘Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.’ 

Conclusions 

  • Work can be very stressful for some people – and work that is hazardous, insecure or involves night shifts may not always be good for our health.
  • However, for most of us work meets a range of psychosocial needs and seems to be good for our mental and physical health.
  • So we probably shouldn’t be rushing to take early retirement and when we do retire we should look for ways to keep mentally, physically and socially active.
  • If we can’t find a job though, there are many ways to put the time available to good use to replicate the psychosocial benefits of work. 

Published August 2011. First reviewed August 2012. Reviewed November 2015 by Laura Symes. Next review due September 2018.

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