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Work stress and ill health – what’s the link?

By guest blogger, on 2 October 2018

Lots of studies have suggested stress can be a cause of ill health – and that leads to people ceasing to work before they reach retirement age. But most have offered only a snapshot on the issue. José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado and  Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester describe a major new study, which has shed new light on how work stress can affect an employee’s health over a longer period.

Many animals have the ability to adapt to environmental changes and pressures so that they’re better prepared the next time they happen. Bears can put on fat as winter approaches, for instance, to help them stave off hunger and stay warm.

And human beings can do this too. Stressful situations trigger chemical responses which can help to give us extra resources when things are tough. Our neuroendocrine systems, for instance, trigger hormonal responses which enhance our physical performance when we need it most.

But these valuable systems can have a down-side. In our research, we wanted to look at how repeated exposure to stressful situations might contribute to health problems, particularly in people nearing the end of their working lives. We call this stress-induced effect ‘Allostatic Load’ – the wear and tear” on the body that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress because of fluctuating hormonal responses.

Given that many governments are looking for ways to extend working lives, there’s particular interest in finding out how stress can affect the health of older workers. We were able to tap into a rich source of information – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a representative sample of almost 10,000 over-50s since 2002.

These participants have been interviewed regularly and one of the things they’ve been asked to report is whether they’ve experienced a sense of imbalance between the effort they put into their jobs and the rewards they get out.

This gave us a sample of 2663 older adults, all over 50 and living in England, who’d reported these feelings at least once and who’d been assessed as having had an adverse reaction to them. We wanted to know whether repeated episodes had a bigger effect than just one, and whether the effect would be just as strong for past episodes as it was for more recent ones.

Health testing

Between 2004-5 and 2014-16 the group were asked about stress at work, but they also underwent physical tests to see how the various systems in their bodies were bearing up.

They were visited by nurses who carried out a battery of tests including taking hair samples to assess levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, carrying out blood pressure checks to provide information on their cardio-vascular systems, white blood cell counts to assess their immune systems and cholesterol checks on their metabolic systems. Participants also had measurements taken of their waist to height ratios – a good indicator of coronary heart disease risk factors.

Overall, we found the more occasions of work-stress a participant had reported, the greater their ‘Allostatic Load’ index – that is, the greater the amount of biological wear and tear.

Moreover, the evidence suggests that employees who had experienced stress more recently, towards the end of their working lives, had higher levels of health risk when compared to those who had experienced it earlier in their careers.

This suggests there is an association between repeated reports of stress at work and biological stress mechanisms, which in turn could lead to stress-related disorders such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes or depression. This also suggests that previous cross-sectional studies which reported small or inconsistent associations may have suffered because they were only measuring one effect at one time.

Work-related stress is one of the reasons for labour market exit – and our findings would suggest that earlier, snapshot studies may have underestimated the true effect of work-related stress on health over a lifetime.

As this is an observational study, we cannot make any causal claims. There may be other factors that we have not taken into account that may explain the association between stress and disease risk. For example, sleep problems may be relevant – though they may also be part of the journey from stress to ill-health.

But equally it is possible that cumulative exposure to work stress is resulting in damage to employees’ physical health, which is then leading to disability and an early exit from the world of work. So, if we want to extend working lives then reducing work-related stress could be one of the keys to achieving that goal.

Allostatic Load and Effort-Reward Imbalance: Associations over the Working-Career, by José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado, Tarani Chandola and Andrew Steptoe, is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

This blog article is courtesy of the Work Life blog, which is a blog about the relationship between work and  health and well-being of people, whether they are preparing for  working life, managing their work / life balance or preparing for retirement and life beyond retirement. Led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London

Working with a long-term illness – does employment status make a difference?

By guest blogger, on 27 September 2018

Across the developed world, a growing share of the population suffers from chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or heart problems – in the EU, around 45 per cent of those aged 55-64 had such a disease in 2015. And that affects their ability to work: just half of those with chronic illnesses are employed, compared to three quarters of those without. But how do the self-employed cope with such conditions, when compared with those in employment? Maria Fleischmann and colleagues from the RenEWL project find these differences in work status can make a major difference.

We know that when people become chronically ill, changes in their working conditions can help them to continue working. And we also know that good working conditions – being able to control how you use your time and how you do your job, whether you make the decisions and whether you feel valued, for instance – can help all of us to stay in paid work for longer.

And of course, if you become ill you’re more likely to feel the need to take time off or maybe to give up work altogether. We wanted to compare how the employed and the self-employed adjust their working conditions when facing a diagnosis of chronic disease.

Existing research tells us that many older people work for employers, and have to ask for their approval when it comes to making adjustments to their working conditions. The self-employed, meanwhile, are much more able to make their own decisions and tend to feel they have more control over their working lives.

We looked at people’s ability to control their work: physical demands, working hours, psychological demands such as how fast they had to work, and social aspects such as whether they felt valued.

And we had a great source of data for this – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a total of almost 9,000 over-50s since 2002.

From that group we were able to find and study 1389 participants who reported no chronic diseases when they were interviewed in 2004-5 – the second wave of interviews – and who were in work.  We were then able to look at what happened to them before the seventh wave of interviews, in 2013-14.

A little over 40 per cent of our sample were in managerial or professional occupations, a quarter in intermediate occupations, and almost 30 per cent in routine and manual occupations.

After diagnosis

At each interview, respondents were asked whether they had been diagnosed by a doctor with lung disease, asthma, arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes or high blood sugar, stroke or heart problems.

During the study period 510 of the 1389 sample members were newly diagnosed with one of those conditions. We were able to look at how they fared at work for four years after that, and we found some striking differences between how the employed and the self-employed seemed to have been treated.

The physical demands of our participants’ jobs were pretty similar before their diagnosis, for instance. But afterwards significant numbers of those who were employed said that those demands had actually increased when they were diagnosed. The self-employed, meanwhile, told us the opposite had happened to them – they reported significantly lower physical demands at work immediately after diagnosis. This effect continued for some time, though it grew less pronounced.

How could that be? We think maybe the increase in physical demands among the employed could be due to perception – similar demands might be perceived as more strenuous by the chronically ill. The self-employed, meanwhile, have more freedom to adjust those demands when they feel they need to.

The self-employed reported that their working hours dropped by an average of 2.8 hours per week on diagnosis, while those who were employed did not see a change. This effect was not statistically significant, though.

Employees found that their level of autonomy at work also dropped marginally, while for the self-employed there was no significant change. We did not find any major changes in psychological or social conditions in either group.

So, what did we learn? Essentially, that improvements in working conditions after diagnosis of chronic illness were restricted to the self-employed. So employers may need to ask themselves some hard questions – do they want to hold on to workers who become unwell? If they do, then they should consider the levels of flexibility they offer, and they should think about making adjustments for those workers if they don’t want to lose them.

In an ageing society, older people are expected to work ever longer and therefore to remain at work even when they begin to suffer from health problems. Our findings should also encourage policy-makers and governments to think about how chronically ill older adults are treated at work.

Changes in autonomy, job demands and working hours after diagnosis of chronic disease: a comparison of employed and self-employed older persons using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA)by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Baowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Stephen A Stansfeld, Mai Stafford and Jenny Head, is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This blog article is courtesy of the Work Life blog, which is a blog about the relationship between work and  health and well-being of people, whether they are preparing for  working life, managing their work / life balance or preparing for retirement and life beyond retirement. Led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London,

A comparison of new dementia diagnosis rates across ethnic groups in UK primary care

By guest blogger, on 31 August 2018

In this post Tra Pham (UCL Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health) discusses her recent work with colleagues from the department, Division of Psychiatry and King’s College London on new diagnoses of dementia and the differences among ethnic groups.

Around 46.8 million people worldwide have dementia; this is expected to rise to 131.5 million by 2050. Recent studies have reported stable or declining rates of new dementia cases overtime.

In 2010, members of our department (Rait et al, 2010, BMJ) conducted a primary care database study to investigate survival of people with a diagnosis of dementia, and reported a stable rate of new dementia diagnoses in UK primary care between 1990 and 2007. We know little about the differences in the likelihood of receiving a dementia diagnosis among different ethnic groups. Some evidence has indicated that people from Black and Minor Ethnic (BME) groups present at services (i.e. GP) later in their illness. Therefore, compared with the White British ethnic group, BME dementia patients may have less access to timely diagnosis. This can prevent them from benefiting from early intervention and treatment which may help slow the progression of the disease.

Our recent study reported the overall rate of new dementia diagnoses in UK primary care between 2007 and 2015. In addition, we reported, for the first time, the rate by White, Asian, and Black ethnic groups. Pulling together current best evidence of new dementia cases in the community and the 2015 UK census data, we estimated the proportion of White and Black people developing dementia who received a diagnosis in 2015. Our hypothesis was that there would be a smaller proportion of Black people with dementia who were diagnosed compared with people from the White ethnic group.

We analysed data of 2.5 million older people from The Health Improvement Network (THIN) database. 66,083 new cases of dementia were identified, which corresponded to an increased rate of new dementia diagnoses between 2007 and 2015 (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Rate of new dementia diagnoses per 1,000 person-years at risk (PYAR) by calendar year in The Health Improvement Network (THIN) UK primary care database.

Compared with White women, the dementia diagnosis rate was 18% lower among Asian women and 25% higher among Black women. This rate was 28% higher among Black men and 12% lower in Asian men, relative to White men. Based on diagnosis rates in THIN data and projections of new dementia cases from community cohort studies, we estimated that 42% of Black men developing dementia in 2015 were diagnosed, compared with 53% of White men.

The results thus suggest that the rates of people receiving a diagnosis may be lower than the actual rates of developing dementia in certain groups, particularly among Black men. There are several possible explanations for this. It could indicate that Black men experience barriers to accessing health services or receiving a diagnosis. GPs may be more reluctant to diagnose dementia in BME groups especially if culturally competent tests are unavailable. GPs and families might also be reluctant to name dementia in communities where more stigma is associated with a diagnosis.

Our study emphasises the need for service improvement targeting BME groups who might be facing barriers to accessing health care services and getting a dementia diagnosis. GPs should be equipped with culturally appropriate assessment tools in order to make a timely diagnosis of dementia for BME patients.

Our findings also highlight the importance of raising awareness of the benefits of getting a timely diagnosis of dementia, particularly in people from minority ethnic groups who may be more at risk of dementia. Timely diagnosis of dementia can lead to more targeted support and enable GPs to provide appropriate patient care management. These benefits can be explained to the patients by family and friends, as well as professionals such as nurses and social workers. They can also help the patients to overcome the fears of talking about dementia. Faith and community groups can contribute to ensuring that local dementia services are accessible to all.

This study is conducted in collaboration with King’s College London. This work is supported by The Dunhill Medical Trust [grant number R530/1116]. Our article and relevant references can be found at:

Pham TM, Petersen I, Walters K, Raine R, Manthorpe J, Mukadam N, Cooper C (2018). Trends in dementia diagnosis rates in UK ethnic groups: analysis of UK primary care data. Clinical Epidemiology (10): 949-960. doi: 10.2147/CLEP.S152647.

This article is courtesy of the UCL Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health blog

Taking time out to scroll free

By guest blogger, on 29 August 2018

As the Royal Society for Public Health launches its #ScrollFreeSeptember campaign, encouraging people to take a break from social media, Professor Yvonne Kelly from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL, discusses new research on the negative impacts of social media use on young people’s health. She explains how the findings point to the need to limit the time that young people, especially girls, spend on social media.

The ScrollFreeSeptember campaign accompanies the launch of a second parliamentary inquiryin less than 12 months into the impact of social media use on young people’s mental health and well-being. Our Centre will be submitting a range of important new findings to that inquiry which seeks to grow the evidence base in an area where there is a great deal of hot debate, but where little is really known and understood.

For our team of researchers, the first indication that all was not well in the world of social media and young people’s mental health came in 2015 when we found that children who were heavy users of screen-based media were less happy and had more social and emotional problems than their peers who used it moderately. Children who used social media sites for chatting were also less likely to be happy and more likely to have problems than their peers who did not.

In March this year, our widely covered work on the trends for boys’ and girls’ social media use added weight to recent calls from the Children’s Commissioner for England to, as she put it, call time on a “life of likes”. In her report, Anne Longfield argued that there was clear evidence of children finding it hard to manage the impact of online life. She said children as young as eight were becoming anxious about their identity as they craved social media likes and comments for validation.

Social media and girls

Our research, based on the experiences of 10,000 children aged 10-15 who took part in the Understanding Society study, showed that this seemed to be the case particularly for girls who used social media for more than an hour a day. 10 year-old girls in the study who spent an hour or more on a school day chatting online had considerably more social and emotional problems later on – by age 15 – than girls of the same age who spent less or no time on social media. The number of problems they faced also increased as they got older, which was not the case for boys.

It was interesting to note that more girls than boys were using social media and for greater periods of time. At age 15, 43 percent of girls and 31 per cent of boys were using it for between one and three hours per day, with 16 and 10 per cent using it for more than four hours.

We think this tells us something important about the different ways that girls and boys interact with social media. For example, girls may be more likely than boys to compare their lives with those of friends and peers – whether those are ‘filtered’ selfies or positive posts about friendships, relationships or material possessions – these could lead to feelings of inadequacy, lower levels of satisfaction and poorer wellbeing.

The pressures associated with having peers like or ‘approve’ status updates and a perceived fall in or lack of popularity could add further pressure at, what for many teenagers is a tricky time in their lives.

Boys are more likely to be gaming than interacting online in the way just described and that wasn’t covered in this research, so it’s possible that for boys, changes in well-being may be more related to gaming success or skill.

But one of the key takeaways of this research is how social media use as a very young person is linked to lower levels of happiness later on – the effects are not short term – they have longer term consequences and

Social media and depression

More recently, we have turned our attention to the social media experiences of the children in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), using information on 11,000 14 year-olds to look at how social media use is linked with depression. We’ve also been asking ourselves what the pathways between these two things might look like, something that’s not really been done before. So, for example, are heavier users of social media getting too little sleep or having trouble getting to sleep because they are checking accounts at bedtime; are they experiencing cyberbullying either as victims or perpetrators; do they appear to have low self-esteem or a negative view of how they look? All these questions can help us better understand what’s at play and come up with better approaches to tackling these problems.

Preliminary findings reinforce the message that girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media. Once again we see more girls than boys in this study using social media and for longer periods of time.

Does using social media affect literacy?

A follow up piece of research looks at whether there are links between the amount of time young people spend on social media and their levels of literacy. Findings suggest a link and that this is the same for boys and girls.

In this research we look at whether the more time young people spend on social media, the less time they have for the things that might improve their literacy such as reading for enjoyment and doing homework.

There are some clear messages from our research so far:

  1. Heavy users of social media are less happy and have more problems at school and at home – interventions to help them limit and manage their social media use better are likely to be important
  2. Girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media and may be an important group to focus on among those looking to mitigate thse effects
  3. More hours spent on social media appear to impact negatively on young people’s wellbeing and could have knock on effects for their longer term prospects at school and work

Social media companies have been accused by the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt among others of turning a blind eye to the problem and the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has been asked to recommend healthy limits for screen time.

Our research indicates that it may indeed be time for recommended healthy and safe limits of social media use, that a focus on girls, especially initiatives to boost their mental health could help mitigate some of the negative effects.

The RSPH is hoping that going scroll free this September might give us all a chance to get our social media use a little more balanced, to think about the benefits to be enjoyed and the negatives to be avoided.

As well as pausing to think about our social media use and how it affects us, it will be an opportunity to examine the facts of the matter, a time to digest new, solid evidence that these large scale studies can help us with and consider the potential longer term costs and consequences of doing nothing.

The forthcoming inquiry hopes to inform “progressive and practical solutions”, including a proposed industry Code of Practice and tools for educators, parents and young people themselves to help them enjoy the benefits and eliminate the negative effects of their social media. We wholly support those efforts and hope they result in positive changes that will make campaigns like ScrollFreeSeptember unnecessary in the future.

This blog article is courtesy of the Child of our Time blog, which is a blog about the health and happiness of children living in the UK. led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London,