Despite pain and fatigue, older workers with chronic conditions want to work to age 65

IWH study of retirement expectations finds boomers with health issues have same plans as healthy peers

Published: July 30, 2019

Having a health condition or a chronic disease can be challenging for older workers, but it doesn’t necessarily decrease their intention to work or hasten their retirement. With appropriate policies and practices, older workers with health limitations can be supported to remain active in the labour force.

That’s according to a recent study from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), led by Senior Scientist and Associate Scientific Director Dr. Monique Gignac and published in February 2019 as an open access paper in the Canadian Journal of Aging (doi:10.1017/S0714980818000685). The study suggests concerns about a shrinking labour force due to an aging population can be addressed in part through workplace policies.

It’s important to remember that older workers often want to remain working, regardless of whether they have a chronic disease or not, says Gignac. And they want to work partly for financial reasons, but also because of a desire to remain productive and to keep the social interactions that work provides.

Cross-Canada survey of boomers

To conduct the study, Gignac and her team drew on a cross-Canada survey of about 1,500 working baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 and aged 50 to 67 at the time of the survey. About 600 of them had arthritis, 300 had diabetes, and 100 had both diabetes and arthritis. The remaining 500 with neither condition served as a comparison group.

The study set out to examine the retirement expectations of older workers with chronic conditions and the extent to which these expectations differed from those of older workers without chronic conditions. Specifically, it asked older workers about their planned age of retirement, whether they expected to retire sooner than planned due to their health, whether they had previously retired and were now working again and, if so, why.

The study found that, despite experiencing more pain and fatigue, older workers with arthritis, diabetes or both were not different from their healthy peers in their retirement plans. Across all groups, survey respondents planned to retire from their current job around the age of 65. Half expected to keep working part time up to the age of 66, and one in 10 said they never wanted to stop working.

Older workers’ retirement plans were sometimes influenced more by work-related factors—for example, by the type of work they did and the perceptions they had of their work—than by their health conditions, according to the study. People who expected to retire at a younger age were less likely to see work as having a positive value. Those with lower career satisfaction were more likely to say they might have to retire sooner than planned. Those working in smaller organizations were more likely to be unsure about when they would retire.

Retiring then returning to work

However, study results did reveal a few differences between those with and without health conditions. One difference was the extent to which people with health conditions felt unsure about their ability to retire when planned. While only six per cent of healthy respondents said they might have to retire sooner than intended due to health issues, a greater percentage of respondents with arthritis or both arthritis and diabetes said the same thing (22 and 25 per cent, respectively).

Another notable difference was the rate at which workers with health conditions had returned to the workforce after retiring from a previous job. While only 13 per cent of healthy respondents reported having retired and returned to work, the percentage of respondents with arthritis or diabetes who reported doing so was 20 and 27 per cent, respectively.

Indeed, respondents with both arthritis and diabetes were 2.5 times as likely as their healthy peers to have returned to work after previously retiring. And those who had returned to work were also more likely to be working part time and making use of available workplace accommodations.

Given that the people who responded to the study survey were 50 to 67 years old, those who reported they had returned to work after previously retiring were likely referring to an early retirement, says Gignac.

Our take on this is a subset of people with chronic diseases such as arthritis and diabetes will retire early and come back to work after retiring. If so, we think they are often looking for certain kinds of jobs and workplaces that will enable them to work. They are looking for flexible workplaces that, for example, offer employees opportunities to work part time or that provide accommodations to help make jobs fit workers’ needs better.

Gignac notes that the study did not include people who were out of the labour market. As a result, some barriers to employment faced by people with chronic conditions may have been inadequately described in this study.