High earners 'can expect relaxing retirement but stress rises for lower paid'

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Three senior girlfriends having fun in the park

People in high-status jobs can look forward to years of relaxing, stress-free retirement - but the same may not be true for those at the other end of the pay scale, new research has shown.

Health inequalities between the haves and have-nots do not narrow for pensioners, despite the higher stress levels associated with lower-grade jobs.

Instead, the gap appears to widen after retirement, the study of 1,143 working and retired Whitehall civil servants found.

Hormone tests showed that, on average, those who had recently picked up their pensions appeared to be less stressed than they were in work.

But more detailed analysis revealed that workers in low grade occupations remained more stressed than their top level counterparts after retirement. In fact, their relative stress levels increased.

Lead researcher Professor Tarani Chandola, from the University of Manchester, said: "It may seem counter-intuitive that stopping low status work which may be stressful does not reduce biological levels of stress.

"This may be because workers who retire from low-status jobs often face financial and other pressures in retirement.

"This study suggests that people's stress levels are not just determined by immediate circumstances, but by long run factors over the course of their lives."

Stress can be measured by testing levels of the hormone cortisol in saliva over the course of the day.

Usually, levels of the stress hormone peak around 30 minutes after waking and fall to their lowest point by bedtime. In a stressed person the "diurnal slope" is flatter, so that cortisol levels remain higher at the end of the day.

Having a cortisol pattern that indicates stress is known to increase the risk of dying from heart disease over a period of several years.

For the civil servants' study, published in the Journal of Gerontology, the researchers compared cortisol diurnal slopes between the different groups of workers.

The scientists concluded: "Socio-economic differences in a biomarker associated with stress increase, rather than decrease, around the retirement period.

"These biological differences associated with transitions into retirement for different occupational groups may partly explain the pattern of widening social inequalities in health in early old age."