Your work environment affects you later in life
Our work environment affects not only how we feel during our working lives and when we retire, but also much later on. A stressful work environment increases the risk of physical and cognitive problems later in life. This is the finding of a team of researchers at the School of Health and Welfare at Jönköping University (JU) in a comprehensive study that has lasted more than 40 years.
The team’s research is based on Swedish data collected from a random sample of the Swedish population that was interviewed and followed up on for more than 40 years, from 1968 to 2011. Around 1800 people participated in the study that looked at a range of factors to see how participants' cognitive (the brain's ability to receive, store, process and retrieve information) and physical functioning was.
Testing memory and mobility
Among other things, the researchers carried out memory tests. These included having participants memorize and repeat words said by the researchers as well as count down from 100 by sevens in a seires of five subtractions'. They also had to answer what country they were in and what day it was.
Participants' mobility, strength and agility were also tested to see if they could perform everyday physical activities. For example, one activity involved lifting a kilogram of sugar while another involvedgetting up from a chair.
The researchers found that a person’s work environment plays a big role in how we feel later in life. A poor psychosocial work environment with high levels of stress increases the risk of poor cognitive and physical function in old age. For example, the risk of not being able to perform everyday tasks increases and memory function deteriorates.
“Work stress is really bad, both in the short term but also in the long term, which is less well known,” says Ingemar Kåreholt, Professor of Gerontology and project leader for the research team.
Control over work matters
Having little control and influence over one's work, for example in terms of tasks and working hours, increases the risk of developing cognitive and physical problems later on in life. Participants in the study who had been in a passive position when it came to their work had nearly 60% cognitive and physical impairment.
The study also showed some gender differences, with men more affected by their psychosocial work environment than women.
“In order for those working today to age healthily, the work environment must be thought about. For example, it is very important that people receive encouragement and support and that they are given tasks that they feel they can handle,” says Ingemar Kåreholt.
Comprehensive research project
The study is part of the research project "Stress across the life course and late-life cognitive and physical function: Which modifiable social and lifestyle factors affects the association?”. The research team consists of Ingemar Kåreholt, Charlotta Nilsen and Deborah Finkel from the School of Health and Welfare at JU, as well as Shireen Sindi from the Karolinska Institute.