Contrary to popular wisdom, people working in low-level jobs are more stressed than those higher up the ladder. According to British researchers who followed civil servants before and after retirement, people who had worked low-level jobs retained high levels of stress hormones in their blood even when they became pensioners.
The team led by Tarani Chandola, a researcher at the University of Manchester, chose to study civil servants because of the unique research opportunity they offer. Civil servants work in a highly hierarchical organization and they also tend to have much better working conditions than other workers in general. This means that the stress gap between the two social groups is likely even wider in other occupations where working conditions for low-status jobs are typically worse.
To determine how biologically stressed the civil workers were, the researchers took daily salivary samples from 1,000 older workers in the British civil service. Multiple samples were taken across the day and the practice continued even after retirement. Back in the lab, researchers would measure levels of cortisol.
Called “the stress hormone,” cortisol influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress. High levels of cortisol cause poor sleep and increase the risk of developing a range of diseases like diabetes.
Basically, what the researchers found was higher levels of cortisol the lower down the occupational hierarchy you go.
“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,” the scientists concluded in their paper.
Chandola says the findings were surprising even for her and colleagues. The results suggest there’s more to it than just poor working conditions as far as what’s driving stress in low-status civil servants. The fact that stress levels didn’t improve even at retirement suggests poor working conditions alone can’t explain increased stress. Instead, there’s likely an interplay of other factors, among them financial insecurity or inadequate pension arrangements.
“While most studies on reducing stress focus on individual behavioral changes such as physical activity, diet, and meditation, what this study shows is that wider social determinants such as occupations and pensions are also important. Changing occupational imbalances such as making pension arrangements fairer for all workers may be an important way to correct the imbalance,” Chandola told ResearchGate.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.