Could having a psychologically demanding job actually be good for you?

Recent research has highlighted that those in psychologically demanding jobs which don’t offer possibility of control are more likely to become ill or to leave the labour market early. But a new study carried out in Sweden suggests the picture may be more complex than previously thought – for some workers, having a demanding job can be associated with good outcomes. Kristin Farrants from the Karolinska Institutet outlines what she and colleagues found and what it might mean for extending people’s working lives.

Governments across the developed world are interested in exploring how people can be enabled to extend their working lives. And a key part of that discussion has focused on how working conditions affect the likelihood that workers will stay on longer.

We know from earlier research that the working environment can affect how people feel about working into later life – if they are in jobs which are demanding but which don’t give them much control, they tend to want to leave. But until now we didn’t know much about what actually happened – do those intentions turn into reality? And what is the relationship between the demands of the job and the amount of control the worker has, when it comes to working after the usual retirement age?

We used nationwide register data from Statistics Sweden, to study all the 55-64 year-olds living and working in Sweden in December 2001. We followed up the same individuals 11 years later, in 2012, to see whether they were still working.

As predicted, we found that those who were in jobs with low levels of control in 2001 were less likely to be in paid work in 2012, while the reverse was true for those with a high level of control over their work tasks.

But when it came to how demanding the job was, the picture was more nuanced. Overall, those with more demanding jobs were less likely to have old-age pension, sick-leave benefits, or social assistance, 11 years on, than those with less demanding jobs, while those with low-demand, low-control jobs were less likely than others to carry on working.

Women and men

But there were significant differences between women and men. We found that when it came to control at work, women who had a high level of control over their work tasks were more likely to stay on in paid work, even if their jobs were not very demanding. For men, this was only the case if their jobs were both high-demand and high-control.

A possible explanation for these gender differences is that the jobs market in Sweden is highly gendered: perhaps the difference is in the type of jobs men and women do, rather than in the level of control or stress they have. It could also be due to differences in other factors, such as family needs, income or health.

Our findings support the underlying theory, which was first proposed in the 1970s by Robert Karasek. His Job Demand Control Model suggests it is high demands in combination with low control that leads to stress which can be bad for our health. Karasek’s model suggests that it is not stress, per se, which makes us ill – it is the mismatch between being asked to do a lot and yet not feeling in control of how we do it. So if our jobs are very demanding yet we feel we are in the driving seat, that makes a big difference to us.

Staying in paid work

Why does this matter? Across the developed world we have falling birth rates and increasing life expectancy – so it’s important to governments that people stay in jobs rather than retiring early. And if workers can stay healthy, this will be easier to achieve.

We already know that low levels of control are associated with high levels of disease, disability and sick leave. But the evidence about the role of job demands has been more equivocal.

Our research adds new depth to the picture. High-stress jobs are not necessarily bad; in fact a demanding job can be a positive factor in older people’s lives. Jobs which stretch and challenge us can keep us moving on in the labour market – and as well help us stay healthy.

Associations between combinations of job demands and job control among 616,818 people aged 55-64 in paid work with their labour market status 11 years later: a prospective cohort study, by Kristin Farrants, Jenny Head, Elisabeth Framke, Reiner Rugulies and Kristina Alexanderson, is published in International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health .

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