It’s now both proven and accepted that long-term stress has damaging effects on our health, yet the effects of midlife stress into old age are just beginning to surface.
By the time people reach their midlife it often becomes increasingly clear what their career limitations are. They find it harder to change career or even to slide across to other companies in the same or similar roles. There’s also a good chance they are in a position of some responsibility, along with all the stress that comes with the job. Looking forward to retirement, or even early retirement, may seem a way to leave all the stress behind, but is it really that simple?
Depending on the survey you consult, estimates of perceived work-related stress vary anywhere from 30 to nearly 60 percent of the working population at any given time. Over the past few years, research into mild or moderate work-stress during middle age, shows an increased likelihood of disability in old age.
A recent study from the Gerontology Research Center in Finland, involving the follow-up of 5,000 adult workers for 30 years, found those who reported long-term stress at work were more disabled during retirement. Stress symptoms including sleep disturbances, physical problems and negative reactions to work were tracked in workers aged 44 to 58 years of age. Those with the highest stress symptoms were 2-3 times less likely to be able to walk two kilometers, had greater difficulties with dressing, bathing, shopping, housework, taking medication and using the telephone. Dr. Jenni Kulmala, lead author of the study, suggests that chronic activation of stress responses results in “wear and tear” of the body and increases the risk of old age disability.
Similar findings, published in 2011 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, tracked 17,000 working adults between 2002 and 2007. During this period 649 people started receiving some form of disability benefit – 203 for a mental health problem. Those with the highest levels of stress at the start of the study had a significantly higher chance of being awarded disability status. However, even those people with mild stress were 70 percent more likely to receive benefits.
Poor work ability in midlife predicts earlier death and disability in old age, found Finnish researchers. In another 2011 study, this time following 6,000 white and blue-collar workers over a 28-year follow-up, the risk of early death was found to be highest in blue-collar workers, although white-collar workers followed a broadly similar gradient.
How should we consider such findings? Although the evidence is modest there seems to be a case for suggesting the demands placed on people in some occupations exceeds their ability to cope. Increasingly this is becoming a feature of modern day living where the focus is primarily on work while the nurturing of supportive networks and close relationships are pushed into second place. At what point do we take stock of this and recognize the insidious effects of stress beyond the point of a working life?