3 June 2019 By Victoria Tomlinson
To anyone working full time, retirement looks like a world of glamour and fun with stories of world-wide travel, walking the Pennines and endless coffees and lunches with friends.
The reality is that retirement has been named as the tenth most stressful event in people’s lives and dramatically increases the chances of both mental and physical health problems.
Everyone knows we are living longer, yet we have not yet adapted government social and health policies, nor properly involved employers in how best to help employees – nor looked at the generation of people who are retiring as one of the biggest opportunities for our economy.
The issue we see at Next-Up is that travel and coffees sound great for retirement – but the reality is they don’t replace the sense of purpose and fulfilment that work provides for so many. Being busy is not the same as feeling good. As one person said, “I have filled my diary and I am busy. Very busy. But my life is empty.”
Yet advice to doctors in the NHS Guide on Mental Health in Older People fails to recognise retirement as an issue or possible root of mental health. The guide does say to look out for bereavement as a likely cause, but does not mention the bereavement suffered when people leave work.
We have helped dozens of people who have retired and many are completely lost as to what they do next. And two things really strike home. The first is this issue of grief/depression. We use the Kübler-Ross grief curve to explain what emotions they may be going through. Almost without fail, people go, “Oh my goodness, I thought it was just me. That makes sense now. This is so helpful to understand why I feel so rubbish.” One man, who you would have thought was fairly happy with life, looked at the curve and said, “Oh, I am at the bottom of the curve.” In other words, he was depressed.
When you think about it, retirement is a form of bereavement – overnight you lose your identity, status, network of colleagues and structure to your life. And for many, you lose your sense of purpose, a key ingredient for happiness and good health.
The second, perhaps biggest issue, is that people don’t know how to find purpose in their life. And it’s much harder than I think most people realise.
In this blog, I want to share the research around mental health and retirement and look at what can be done to minimise the risks.
The research on mental health later in life tends to look at ‘older people’ – generally classified as aged either 55 or 60 plus – though some specifically reference ‘retirement’.
The challenge is that this generation of people spans 50+ years from say, a 55 year old retiring in pretty good health and running marathons up to the ‘elderly’ who could be in their late 90s, may be frail, with decreased mobility and suffering a number of chronic illnesses. All the research recognises that people may retire because of ill-health, and that people tend to get more illnesses as they get older anyway. However, some of the researchers have had a reasonable stab at comparing people of the same age still working with those not working and drawing what look like fair conclusions as to the impact of retirement itself – as opposed to ageing. I have included links to all of this so you can examine these findings in more detail.
Here is a snapshot from the research on mental health in retirement
The World Health Organisation’s report on Mental Health of Older Adults lists six priorities to ‘meet the needs of older populations’ – but I think is missing two really key points for the younger group of ‘older adults’. Here is their list
For me, the missing points are
Finding purpose is directly linked to good health – and lots of reports talk about its importance. But I have yet to find anyone who says how to go about this. I have been surprised at just how hard people find this, but when people’s lives have been wrapped up in work and family they haven’t had time to think beyond this and work out what they really care about, what matters to them. This is a topic I am looking at in a lot of detail and would welcome views and insights.
For the 50 to 70 year-old generation, we need a new approach – from employers, government, academics, social and health providers. These are how we see those priorities
I believe the generation of people retiring now and in the next few years is one of the greatest untapped resources this country has ever seen. The challenge is how we ensure the potential cost of mental health problems is turned around to be an asset that benefits individuals, companies and the country.
Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.