You Are More Stressed Out Than Your Boss, Science Says

A new UK study has found a lifetime of higher stress in lower level employees.

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A new UK study that tested correlations between employment level and degree of stress has found that your boss may actually be taking it easier than you are, even though they have more responsibilities.

The study, titled “Retirement and Socioeconomic Differences in Diurnal Cortisol: Longitudinal Evidence From a Cohort of British Civil Servants,” published in The Journals of Gerontology, measured the diurnal (daytime) cortisol levels of Whitehall II civil servants in London. It’s white collar work with multiple levels of employment hierarchy. Researchers then charted the slope of the change in the subjects’ cortisol levels throughout the day.

Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that is associated with a stress response in humans. Typically, cortisol levels are highest in the morning when we wake up, and then steadily drop to very low levels in the evening when we go to sleep. Therefore, the steeper the diurnal cortisol slope (i.e. the degree one’s cortisol levels decrease throughout the day) the less stressed and (probably) healthier a person is.

While the study did note, as expected, a downward diurnal cortisol slope in all employees tested, there was a marked difference between those on the bottom rungs of the ladder than those at the top. Those at the lowest levels of employment consistently showed less of a change both while they were working and after they’d retired.

The researchers measured employees’ cortisol levels via saliva samples taken at several fixed times throughout the day, and also took note of other variables such as time spent sleeping, their age, their sex, and whether or not they were a smoker. Because of the sheer number of other factors, it’s difficult to point exclusively to peoples’ jobs as the cause of this increased stress. But the correlation is nonetheless compelling.

This study has shown that British civil servants employed in the lowest occupational grades had flatter (more adverse) diurnal cortisol slopes compared to those in the highest grades…Retirement was associated with steeper (more advantageous) diurnal slopes compared to those who remained in work; however, there was no difference in the retirement slope by occupational grade. Retirement was not associated with more advantageous cortisol profiles for those formerly employed in the lowest grades in comparison to their peers who were still working.

The researchers illustrated these discrepancies in several graphs.

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As shown in the graph, high-grade employees began the day with higher cortisol levels but ended it with significantly lower ones. That trend continued into retirement where former high-grade employees experienced less stress wholesale, throughout the entire day.

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“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,” writes the researchers of their conclusions.

In other words: These recorded stress levels could have less to do with the jobs themselves and more to do with the circumstances stemming from and surrounding them. The concerns created by having less money and a less secure financial future stick with people, even into their golden years. While high-grade retirees are resting easy, social stratification actually seems to get worse, not better, as life goes on — and low-grade workers appear to be noticing. After all, what’s more stressful than an uncertain future?

While the results aren’t exactly surprising, it’s useful to have this information before our eyes. It’s no secret that stress is a killer. Heightened levels of stress can have a host of negative health effects. If the stress of low-grade work, combined with its attendant lack of life security, are stressing people out this much, it may be a signal that it’s time to rethink the workplace.

Also worth noting is the fact that this was a UK study, done in a country where things like health care come at no out-of-pocket cost to those in need. It would be interesting to see a similar study conducted on low-grade American workers and retirees. One might expect cortisol levels to be pretty high here, too, especially in the wake of President Donald Trump’s health care law passing in the House, which could eliminate certain employer-required healthcare benefits for employees. The law as written would allow, among other things, insurance companies to charge seniors up five times more than young people.

You can read the full study here.

Objectives: Early old age and the period around retirement are associated with a widening in socioeconomic inequalities in health. There are few studies that address the stress-biological factors related to this widening. This study examined whether retirement is associated with more advantageous (steeper) diurnal cortisol profiles, and differences in this association by occupational grade.
Method: Data from the 7th (2002–2004), 8th (2006), and 9th (2007–09) phases of the London-based Whitehall II civil servants study were analysed. Thousand hundred and forty three respondents who were employed at phase 8 (mean age 59.9 years) and who had salivary cortisol measured from five samples collected across the day at phases 7 and 9 were analysed.
Results: Retirement was associated with steeper diurnal slopes compared to those who remained in work. Employees in the lowest grades had flatter diurnal cortisol slopes compared to those in the highest grades. Low-grade retirees in particular had flatter diurnal slopes compared to high-grade retirees.
Discussion: Socioeconomic 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.
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