1. Study looks at pros and cons of workday interruptions

    May 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Baylor University press release:

    Consider these scenarios.

    You’re focused on an important project at work and your phone rings. It’s your spouse.

    You’ve just finished dinner with your family and you’re cleaning up the table. Your phone buzzes. An email from your boss.

    Are these interruptions of your work and family time harmful or helpful?

    Yes and no, according to a new study from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. The study, published in the Journal of Management, analyzed daily diaries kept by 121 employees, who agreed to log their activities for 10 days as part of the research. Each participant worked at least 35 hours per week during traditional business hours, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and was in a committed relationship, living with a spouse or partner.

    “Our results demonstrate that the effect of interruptions in the work and home domains are twofold: On one hand, they may lead to unwelcome consequences, including obstruction of goals, negative affect, decreased satisfaction with investment in work and family and work-family conflict,” researchers wrote. “On the other, greater integration of work and family may afford workers increased positive affect, as these interruptions help them meet certain work or family goals.”

    Emily Hunter, Ph.D., associate professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, served as lead author on the study. She said technology is blurring the boundaries between work and family, and this can have daily consequences on workers.

    “When you give to one domain, you must take from the other. There are only so many hours in the day,” Hunter said. “Interruptions from family ‘take’ from work in the form of work goal obstructions, negative emotions and lower satisfaction with investment in work.”

    She said that proper planning could turn these interruptions into benefits that help employees meet work and family goals.

    The study shows that boundary violations at work were relatively common, and the researchers suggest managers and employees seek strategies to actively manage work and family boundaries.

    “For example, employees could set aside specific times in their workday when they invite and initiate communication with family, such as lunch time or a midafternoon break when their children arrive home from school,” researchers wrote. “In this way, they allow their work boundary to be permeable to family violations at certain times while setting limits on family interruptions that would otherwise interfere with workflow. Not only does this minimize work goal obstruction, but it also may generate positive outcomes for their family members.”

    When work invades family time, employees can use that to their advantage as well, Hunter said.

    “Workers who work from home in off-job hours can also benefit from managing co-worker expectations about availability after hours, setting aside time after children go to bed to accomplish work tasks with minimal obstruction to their family role and setting limits on hours of smartphone use for work purposes,” she said.

    In the study, researchers suggest workers request that coworkers or supervisors contact them after hours using communication mediums with varying levels of urgency: emergencies only by phone call or text message whereas matters that can wait until morning via email.


  2. Study looks at effect of bad advice about workplace bullying

    by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University press release:

    Targets of workplace bullying get plenty of advice from coworkers and family on how to respond to the situation and make it stop. While well intentioned, much of the advice victims receive is impractical or only makes their situation worse, said Stacy Tye-Williams, an assistant professor of communication studies and English at Iowa State University.

    “If you haven’t experienced bullying, you don’t understand it and it is hard to imagine what you actually would do in the situation,” Tye-Williams said.

    Still, that doesn’t stop people from offering advice. Friends and family do so because they want to be helpful, Tye-Williams said. In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Tye-Williams and Kathleen Krone, a co-author and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, interviewed nearly 50 employees who were being bullied at the time or had been bullied in the past. The most common advice the employees received — quit your job.

    Tye-Williams says not only is quitting an unreasonable option financially, but several targets of bullying felt they had done nothing wrong and should not have to leave a job they enjoy. They expressed a “sense of moral justification” and were willing to take the abuse, not to let the bully win. Choosing to suffer silently rarely improved the situation for the target, Tye-Williams said.

    In the paper, researchers shared the following response from a woman who had invested 20 years in her job and was the target of bullying.

    “I’ve worked really, really hard, and why should I have to give up a job that I was good in because of…the unprofessional way that somebody else was behaving? I just didn’t feel it was fair,” the woman told researchers.

    Researchers found some common themes among the advice victims received. These were the top five recommendations:

    • Quit or get out of the situation — 27 percent
    • Ignore it or blow it off — 23 percent
    • Fight or stand up to the bully — 17 percent
    • Stay calm — 10 percent
    • Report the bullying — 10 percent

    A small percentage of victims were also told to “punch the bully” or to “quit making things up.”

    Victims would offer same bad advice

    Many victims feared retaliation or further humiliation if they directly confronted the bully, and lacking a better option, they did nothing about the abuse. Despite the bad advice, most victims said they would tell others in their situation to do the same thing. This was initially puzzling to researchers, but Tye-Williams says it soon became clear that victims lacked insight into strategies that were helpful for dealing with workplace bullies.

    “Targets really felt stuck and didn’t know what to do about the bullying. They repeated the same advice even though they felt it would not have worked for them, or if they did follow the advice it made the situation worse,” Tye-Williams said. “It became clear how important it is to help targets understand alternative approaches to addressing bullying.”

    Developing a method or model for responding to workplace bullying must start with an open dialogue, in which people can share what has worked for them and brainstorm creative or different solutions, Tye-Williams said. An important start is to develop advice that is more useful, and disseminate stories in which targets successfully managed their situation. The best thing family members, friends, and colleagues can do is to simply listen without judgment to help targets work through available options, she said.

    Dismissing emotion causes more harm

    Employees shared very emotional accounts of the bullying they suffered, and strongly reacted when coworkers or friends told them not to cry or get upset. Telling a victim to calm down or conceal their emotion minimizes the experience and is not helpful, Tye-Williams said. She describes it as “really strange advice” given how some of these people were treated.

    “To me it would be abnormal for someone to be treated in this way and have no emotional reaction,” Tye-Williams said. “Telling victims to calm down does a lot of damage. When we’re talking about traumatic work experiences, it’s important to allow people to have a space to express their very normal emotions.”

    Researchers found that some victims, when told to calm down, tended to shut down and stop talking about the abuse and suffer silently. That’s why it’s necessary to provide victims with a safe space to openly talk about the situation and feel that their voice is being heard, Tye-Williams said. Through this research, she found going to a supervisor or human resources manager did not guarantee victims were taken seriously and the problem would be corrected.

    Tye-Williams says the lack of managerial response or resolution is another example of the complexity in handling workplace bullying. Part of the complexity is trying to develop a rational, logical response to what is often an irrational situation. In many cases, managers expected employees to resolve the situation on their own, which was not a reasonable expectation, she said.

    “Management is not always good about helping people navigate a conflict to reach a resolution. They don’t want to get involved, they expect employees to figure it out or that it’ll blow over,” Tye-Williams said. “It’s not that managers don’t want to be helpful, they often just don’t know how to be helpful.”

    Understanding that common pieces of advice to combat workplace bullying often don’t work may help managers, coworkers, family members and friends move beyond “canned advice” and develop more appropriate alternatives to addressing bullying, she added.


  3. Study suggests helping co-workers in the morning can be mentally fatiguing

    May 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    If you show up at work tired, you may want to focus strictly on your own tasks. New research suggests helping coworkers in the morning can lead to mental exhaustion and self-serving behavior in the afternoon that ultimately can create a toxic work environment.

    The study builds on the previous work of Michigan State University’s Russell Johnson and colleagues that found helping others at work can be mentally fatiguing for employees.

    Turns out, that helping behavior can be particularly harmful when it’s done in the morning hours.

    “The increase in mental fatigue from helping coworkers in the morning led employees to reduce their helping behaviors in the afternoon and, perhaps more interestingly, they engaged in more self-serving political behaviors in the afternoon as well,” said Johnson, associate professor of management in MSU’s Broad College of Business. “They switched from being other-oriented in the morning to being selfish in the afternoon.”

    Johnson and colleagues studied 91 full-time employees over 10 consecutive workdays (participants completed two surveys a day — morning and afternoon — on their workplace experiences). While previous research has noted the “dark side” of helping others on an individual’s well-being and performance implications, Johnson said, this study is the first to explore the downstream effect on political behavior.

    Helping others may not only harm the well-being of the individual, but through the subsequent increase in political behavior may harm others in the office as well, the study says.

    “Although we did not identify the consequences of these political behaviors, research has established that political acts from employees can culminate into a toxic work environment with negative well-being and performance consequences.”

    The authors aren’t suggesting workers never help their colleagues in the morning, of course, but that they show discretion, particularly when they start the day already tired or mentally fatigued. When they do help coworkers in such circumstances, employers can make sure they get work breaks and lunch periods to help them recover.

    If breaks aren’t possible, managers should make sure they encourage proper separation from work once employees return home.


  4. Study suggests even negative attention is better than being ignored

    May 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Basel press release:

    After experiencing social exclusion, a minimum of attention suffices to reduce individuals’ negative emotions. Even rejection or unkind comments are better for well-being than being ignored by other people. This finding has important implications for the treatment of applicants during selection processes, report psychologists from the University of Basel and Purdue University in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

    If there is more than one applicant for a job opening, all but one candidate must inevitably be rejected. This rejection, which is comparable to social exclusion, often arouses negative emotions in the unsuccessful applicants.

    Previous research has shown that individuals are very sensitive to even the smallest sign of social exclusion, as this endangers fundamental human needs such as the needs for belonging, self-esteem and control. It also threatens a person’s own sense of being significant to others.

    As few studies have been dedicated to investigating which factors can improve negative emotions after social exclusion, psychologists from the University of Basel and Purdue University (USA) investigated factors that can make such situations more bearable.

    Any form of recognition helps

    The researchers analyzed how people feel after being socially excluded and then reintegrated, and how receiving a small amount of attention affects the excluded persons. To do this, they carried out experiments in which the participants played a virtual ball-throwing game. However, participants did not receive the ball from the other players and were thus excluded them from the game. In other experiments, participants took part in a fictitious search for an apartment. Here, the minimal attention was simulated via a neutral, pleasant or unfriendly message that participants received together with the rejection.

    All the experiments showed that even small indications of integration and attention reduced the distress of social exclusion. Although people react quickly and sensitively to exclusion, they are also influenced by signs of reintegration and attention. This is the case no matter whether the attention they receive is positive or negative.

    The bright side of rejection and negative criticism

    The research findings emphasize the importance of granting minimal attention during selection processes. “To make these as stress-free as possible, HR managers, universities and landlords should pay rejected candidates a minimum of attention via a letter or email, for example,” says Dr. Selma Rudert, the study’s author from the University of Basel.

    Even when it comes to justified criticism in the workplace, employees may be more satisfied when they receive negative feedback than if they receive no feedback at all in the long term. Consultancies that deal with workplace or school bullying should pay more attention to whether people are being ignored by others, as social rejection can have psychological consequences as negative as those of active aggression or bullying.


  5. Study examines routes to empathy

    May 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    When it comes to empathy, the idiom that suggests “walking a mile in their shoes” turns out to be problematic advice, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

    “That’s because there are two routes to empathy and one of them is more personally distressing and upsetting than the other,” says Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology and co-author of the study led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Anneke E.K. Buffone, who was a PhD student at UB when the research was conducted.

    The findings, based on stress physiology measures, add a new and previously unexplored dimension to understanding how choosing a path to empathy can affect a helper’s health and well-being. The study’s conclusions provide important insights into areas ranging from training doctors to raising children.

    The routes to empathy Poulin mentions diverge at the point of the helper’s perspective. The two may sound similar, but actually turn out to be quite different in terms of how they affect the person who is trying to help another.

    One approach observes and infers how someone feels. This is imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT). The other way to empathize is for helpers to put themselves into someone else’s situation, the imagined “walking a mile” scenario. This is imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT).

    “You can think about another person’s feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself (IOPT),” says Poulin. “But I begin to feel sad once I go down the mental pathway of putting myself into the place of someone who is feeling sad (ISPT).

    “I think sometimes we all avoid engaging in empathy for others who are suffering partially because taking on someone else’s burdens (ISPT) could be unpleasant. On the other hand, it seems a much better way to proceed is if it’s possible to show empathy simply by acknowledging another person’s feelings without it being aversive (IOPT).”

    Some previous research has tried to get at the question of stress relative to IOPT and ISPT by asking people to report how they felt after a helping behavior. But the current study breaks new ground by examining the effects of perspective taking while someone is engaged in helping behavior.

    “I have some degree of uncertainty about how well people are parsing out the distinction when reporting how much they were feeling for themselves versus the other person,” says Poulin.

    That uncertainty motivated the current study’s design, which measured a cardiovascular response that reliably indicates the difference between feeling personally anxious or not.

    “When we are feeling threatened or anxious, some peripheral blood vessels constrict making it harder for the heart to pump blood through the body,” says Poulin. “We can detect this in the lab and what we found is that people who engaged in ISPT had greater levels of this threat response compared to people who engaged in IOPT.”

    This conclusion could be especially useful in the context of medical professions, like doctors and nurses, especially in areas with high rates of burnout, according to Poulin.

    “Many of these professionals see so much pain and suffering that it eventually affects their careers,” he says. “That might be the result of habitually engaging in ISPT. They put themselves in their patients’ shoes. “Maybe we can train doctors and nurses to engage in IOPT so they can continue to be empathetic toward their patients without that empathy creating a burden.”

    says this applies as well to teachers and students, social workers and clients. “In fact, now that we’re transitioning to such a service economy, it’s nearly everybody: technical support, complaint hotline operators, restaurant servers.”

    Parents might even consider the study’s finding when thinking about how they speaking to their children in certain circumstances. “Rather than saying to a child, ‘How would you feel if that were done to you?’ maybe we should be saying, ‘Think about how that person is feeling.'”


  6. Researchers look to boost crowdsourced brainstorming

    May 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    The Information Age has drastically changed the landscape of one of humanity’s most creative processes, idea generation or ideation. The emergence of crowdsourcing platforms, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, has enabled a greater, more diverse audience to contribute to the creative process from the comfort of their own homes.

    “However, the very nature of crowdsourcing means that ideators can be overwhelmed by the number of ideas generated, rather than inspired by them,” says Victor Girotto, a PhD candidate at the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. “There are several issues that need to be considered in systems that operate at this scale, such as the organization of the ideas, as well as the subsequent convergence on the best ones,” adds Erin Walker, an assistant professor at the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University.

    In an effort to enhance idea generation within the crowd context, Girotto and Walker partnered with Winslow Burleson, an associate professor at NYU’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing. Together, the trio sought to determine what effect peripheral tasks–such as rating and combining others’ ideas had on ideation performance.

    “Embedding peripheral micro-tasks within the ideation process may enable such systems to move from passive to active forms of inspiration and support, resulting in a stronger ideation session,” said Burleson.

    Through a series of four experiments on Mechanical Turk, the group tested their hypothesis, utilizing an online module of their own design. Each experiment had a control, an exposure group, and multiple task groups. In every study, where each group was given the same problem for which they were to contribute ideas. The control group only received the problem prompt. Members of the exposure group were given access to an inspiration panel, where they could prompt the system to display others’ ideas. Task groups were given access to the inspiration panel, however, subjects were required perform microtasks on the inspirations: rating, comparing, or combining others’ ideas.

    “To determine what, if any, impact these microtasks had on ideation we measured the number of ideas generated by each user as well as the breadth and depth of their ideas,” said Girotto. Breadth is a measure of the number of concepts an ideator explored, whereas depth is the number of ideas within an ideator’s most explored concept. Furthermore, the researchers measured the number of inspirations each user requested, as well as inspiration influence–a user’s average similarity between an idea and the most similar of its preceding inspirations.

    “Through our trials we found the performance of the microtask groups to be as good or better than the exposure groups in terms of the breadth of the ideas they generated,” said Burleson. However, the team found these effects to depend on two factors: time of ideation and productivity of the ideator. For time of ideation, they found greater effects on the second half of the ideation session, when ideators are more likely to be running out of ideas, and thus may receive greater benefits from inspirations. As for their productivity, it makes sense that those who generated more ideas would also be more affected by the different inspiration types, as they may be more willing and capable to use them effectively.

    “Our research provides some support and guidance in explicitly embedding microtasks into ideation, which will not only be aiding ideators in their idea generation, but will also be generating information useful for converging on the best ideas.” said Girotto. The full findings of this research are detailed in “The Effect of Peripheral Micro-tasks on Crowd Ideation.”


  7. Differences in levels of trust and power can affect buyer-supplier performance

    May 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Mutual trust does not appear on the ledger sheets of buyers and suppliers, but researchers suggest that levels of trust between companies may be an important influence on how they operate and perform.

    “In business settings, we tend to believe that the more that a business trusts the other, that business will be perceived as less opportunistic, in other words, the higher the level of trust, the lower the opportunistic behavior,” said Veronica Villena, assistant professor of supply chain management, Penn State. “In this study, we actually show that it doesn’t work like that. It’s not about the level of trust, though. It’s about the asymmetry, or the difference between the levels of trust.”

    In a study, the researchers, who released their findings in a recent issue of Production and Operations Management, found that trust reduces opportunistic behavior only when both sides have similar levels of trust. However, a buyer or supplier with a higher level of trust than its counterpart is more likely to be perceived as being more opportunistic, not less opportunistic.

    Business experts tend to focus on size differences in firms as the primary driver of opportunism in buyer-supplier relationships. For example, big buyers, which have more employees, larger sales, or both, are perceived as being more likely to take advantage of their smaller-sized suppliers.

    “One example of this might be if you’re a smaller supplier working with a company that has big purchasing power,” said Villena. “Obviously, that company can press the smaller supplier to do things for it. But what if it’s the other way around? These kinds of asymmetries happen all the time.”

    The researchers found that the size asymmetry — and, thus, power asymmetry — influence the perceptions of opportunism. For example, bigger buyers tend to perceive smaller suppliers as less opportunistic while smaller suppliers perceive their bigger buyers as more opportunistic. On the other hand, bigger suppliers are not necessarily perceived as opportunistic by their smaller buyers.

    Suppliers may feel they have more to lose from future dealings than buyers, according to Villena, who worked with Christopher W. Craighead, Dove Professor of Supply Chain Management, University of Tennessee.

    She added that while supply chain management is often viewed as solely a statistical endeavor, soft skills are often required in maintaining buyer and supplier relationships.

    “In supply chain, we particularly talk about the hard skills — the size and power of a firm — and we tend to overlook the soft side, which is trust, reciprocity, interpersonal relationships,” said Villena. “In this case, we show both are important, but the one with the higher impact is these softer skills.”

    The researchers collected survey and archival data from 106 buying companies and their matched suppliers from Spain during 2011 to 2012.

    The survey asked how long the companies worked together and the perception of trust of companies on their counterparts. Questions also asked whether the companies believed their counterparts engaged in opportunistic behaviors, such as hiding information or exaggerating their needs to further their own interests.

    The archival data was collected from the SABI database, which contains business information from companies in Spain and Portugal.


  8. Personality factors are best defense against losing your job to a robot

    May 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Houston press release:

    Worried robots will take your job? Researchers say people who are more intelligent and who showed an interest in the arts and sciences during high school are less likely to fall victim to automation.

    Later educational attainment mattered, but researchers said the findings highlight the importance of personality traits, intelligence and vocational interests in determining how well people fare in a changing labor market. The work was published this week in the European Journal of Personality.

    “Robots can’t perform as well as humans when it comes to complex social interactions,” said Rodica Damian, assistant professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Houston and lead author of the study. “Humans also outperform machines when it comes to tasks that require creativity and a high degree of complexity that is not routine. As soon as you require flexibility, the human does better.”

    Researchers used a dataset of 346,660 people from the American Institutes of Research, which tracked a representative sample of Americans over 50 years, looking at personality traits and vocational interests in adolescence, along with intelligence and socioeconomic status. It is the first study to look at how a variety of personality and background factors predict whether a person will select jobs that are more (or less) likely to be automated in the future.

    “We found that regardless of social background, people with higher levels of intelligence, higher levels of maturity and extraversion, higher interests in arts and sciences … tended to select (or be selected) into less computerizable jobs 11 and 50 years later,” they wrote.

    In addition to Damian, the researchers included Marion Spengler of the University of Tuebingen and Brent W. Roberts of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    Damian said the findings suggest traditional education may not be fully equipped to address upcoming changes in the labor market, although she acknowledged the educational system has changed since the research subjects were in school in the 1960s.

    “Perhaps we should consider training personality characteristics that will help prepare people for future jobs,” she said.

    The researchers found that every 15-point increase in IQ predicted a 7 percent drop in the probability of one’s job being computerized, the equivalent of saving 10.19 million people from losing their future careers to computerization if it were extrapolated across the entire U.S. population. Similarly, an increase of one standard deviation in maturity or in scientific interests — equal to an increase of 1 point on a 5-point scale, such as moving from being indifferent to scientific activities to liking them fairly well — across the U.S. population would each be equivalent to 2.9 million people avoiding a job loss to computerization.

    While IQ is not easily changed, a solution could be to find effective interventions to increase some personality traits — doing well in social interactions, for example, or being industrious — or interest in activities related to the arts and sciences, Damian said.

    Machine learning and big data will allow the number of tasks that machines can perform better than humans to increase so rapidly that merely increasing educational levels won’t be enough to keep up with job automation, she said. “The edge is in unique human skills.”

    Still, that can correlate with more education, and the researchers say an across-the-board increase in U.S. education levels could mean millions fewer jobs at risk. Targeting at-risk groups would yield significant benefits, she said.

    And while skeptics question whether the labor market will be able to absorb millions of higher skilled workers, Damian looks at it differently.

    “By preparing more people, at least more people will have a fighting chance,” she said.


  9. Abusing power hurts leaders too

    May 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Florida press release:

    We know that power can corrupt, making people act in ways that harm others. But new research from the University of Florida shows that when the powerful misbehave, they hurt themselves, too.

    “We always think those who have power are better off, but having power is not universally or exclusively good for the power holder,” said Trevor Foulk, who led the research as a doctoral student at UF’s Warrington College of Business and will start as an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business in June.

    Foulk and fellow Warrington researchers Klodiana Lanaj, Min-Hsuan Tu, Amir Erez and Lindy Archambeau found that leaders who acted abusively to colleagues had trouble relaxing after work and were less likely to feel competent, respected and autonomous in the workplace. The findings, published in the Academy of Management Journal, stemmed from surveys of 116 leaders in fields including engineering, medicine, education and banking over a three-week span.

    Rather than structural power – a leader’s position in the hierarchy – the study looked at psychological power, or how powerful a leader feels, which changes as they move through the workday. When leaders felt powerful, they were more likely to act abusively and perceive more incivility from their coworkers, which in turn harmed their own well-being.

    “This flips the script on abusive leadership,” Foulk said. “We tend to assume that powerful people just go around and abuse and they’re totally fine with it, but the effect of power on the power holder is more complex than that.”

    Side-stepping the negative effects of power might require us to rethink the qualities we look for in a leader. Foulk’s study suggests that agreeable leaders – those who value social closeness, positive relationships and workplace harmony – may be less susceptible to the misbehavior brought on by psychological power.

    It’s also possible that, over time, the consequences of psychological power are self-correcting. If a leader acts abusively, then goes home and feels bad about it, he or she might come back to work the next day feeling less powerful and behave better – a phenomenon Foulk is studying for a future paper.

    Although a boss who yells, curses or belittles might not seem to deserve our sympathy, “they’re suffering, too,” Foulk says. “Even though your boss may seem like a jerk, they’re reacting to a situation in a way many of us would if we were in power. It’s not necessarily that they’re monsters.”


  10. Retirement associated with lower stress, but only if you were in a top job

    May 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Oxford University Press USA press release:

    A new paper published in the Journal of Gerontology suggests that the period around retirement may widen socio-economic inequalities in stress and health.

    Poorer people, or people in low status occupations, often have poorer health and higher biological stress response levels. The socio-economic-health gradient peaks around retirement in the United States and a number of European countries. This widening in health inequalities could be a reflection of the accumulation of socio-economic disadvantages over a lifetime, with early life inequalities in health becoming magnified over the life cycle.

    Retirement, however, could potentially moderate this pattern of widening health inequalities if changes in biological stress levels during retirement differ between socioeconomic groups. Higher stress levels associated with lower status work could be mitigated by retirement.

    Cortisol is a stress hormone that follows a diurnal profile, peaking around 30 minutes after awakening, and returning to very low levels by bedtime. Stressors disrupt the diurnal profile of cortisol, resulting in elevated levels of cortisol and a flatter diurnal slope from the awakening response to bedtime. Flatter diurnal cortisol slopes are thus a key biomarker associated with higher levels of stress.

    Flatter diurnal cortisol slopes are also associated with cardiovascular mortality — a one standard deviation increase in cortisol at bedtime was associated with a doubling of the relative risk of cardiovascular mortality within 6-8 years.

    This study investigated whether workers who had recently retired had lower biological stress levels as indicated by steeper (more advantageous) diurnal cortisol slopes compared to those still working in later life.

    Data from the London based Whitehall II civil servants study were analysed. 1,143 respondents who were employed with an average age of 60 were measured from five samples collected across the day. Civil service employment grade was used to categorise people into high, middle or low grades.

    Retirement was associated with lower stress levels- those who had recently retired had steeper diurnal slopes compared to those who remained in work. But on further investigation, this apparent benefit of retirement on lowering biological stress response levels was only confined to those in high status jobs. Workers in the lowest status jobs had flatter diurnal cortisol slopes compared to those in the top jobs. And retirement increased, rather than decreased these differences in biological stress levels.

    This study has shown that British civil servants employed in the lowest status jobs had the highest levels of stress as indicated by flatter (more adverse) diurnal cortisol slopes compared to those in the highest status jobs. Socio-economic differences in cortisol levels 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.

    “It may seem counter-intuitive that stopping low status work which may be stressful does not reduce biological levels of stress, said the study’s lead author, Tarani Chandola. “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.