Balancing act: Less work, more social life key to happiness for seniors, study shows

In a recent article published in BMC Public Healthresearchers propose a modified work-life balance (WLB) concept for older adults aged ≥ 55 years that considers the aging process and parameters representing working hours and the degree of social engagement.

Study: Working hours, social engagement, and depressive symptoms: an extended work-life balance for older adults. Image Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.comStudy: Working hours, social engagement, and depressive symptoms: an extended work-life balance for older adults. Image Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

Background

Most previous studies on WLB and its consequences on health have not examined the consequences of working hours alongside social engagement on depressive symptoms. Moreover, these studies only focused on the population aged <65 years.

Compared to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, Korea has a poverty rate among individuals aged ≥65 years due to a flawed public pension system.

So, more older adults, both women and men in Korea, rely on labor earnings, temporary jobs, etc., during the average 11.3-year gap between retirement age and labor-market exit.

Continuing to work after retirement for economic and other reasons (e.g., avoid idleness) nevertheless promotes healthy aging by providing physical activity and social interaction. Since the 1970s, various theories have explored WLB, such as the Boundary and Border and Enrichment theories.

However, the limitation of existing research on WLB is that it focuses more on younger workers, who often juggle job commitments and childcare, neglecting the unique challenges and perspectives of older individuals.

Even in older workers, work–family conflict (WFC) may escalate health issues and vice-versa. Other factors, such as job stress and long working hours, are associated with chronic diseases, depressive symptoms, and musculoskeletal disorders. 

While employment has positive effects on overall health and cognition, unemployment increases the risk of depression. 

Studies have shown that depression and depressive symptoms are common among older populations. They also exhibit loss of interest, somatic symptoms, and cognitive changes and are at a higher risk of committing suicide.

The relationship between work-life balance, social engagement, and depression in older adults is not well-established, but understanding these is crucial for promoting healthy aging.

About the study

In the present study, researchers used nationally representative cross-sectional data from the Korean Longitudinal Study of Aging (KLoSA) from 2016 to determine whether an optimum balance between working hours and social engagement protects against depressive symptoms among older adults aged ≥55 years. They analyzed their data without limitations in activities of daily living (ADL).

Three main study variables were working hours, social engagement, and depressive symptoms. The researchers categorized self-reported working hours and defined overtime as exceeding 55 hours per week based on previous studies linking long working hours to increased health risks.

Further, they divided social engagement into formal and informal participation. Formal participation was evaluated based on involvement in activities, such as attending meetings, groups, or clubs, religious participation, volunteering, and recording activity levels as low, medium, and high.

Similarly, they recorded the frequency (low, medium, and high) of informal social activities, such as meeting with close friends, relatives, or neighborhood friends.

Furthermore, the researchers evaluated the presence of depressive symptoms in older adults using a widely used screening tool called the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression 10-item scale (CES-D10), which encompassed negatively and positively phrased items, and individuals with positive responses to four or more items were considered to have depressive symptoms.

The chi-square test was used to compare work- and life-related factors (categorical variables) among different age groups. They used multivariate logistic regression analysis to evaluate the relationships among working hours, social engagement (predictor variables), and depressive symptoms (binary outcome variable). It accommodated multiple predictor variables simultaneously. 

These analyses controlled for several covariates to isolate the specific effects of the predictor variables. These were sociodemographic covariates such as age, gender, marital and educational status, income quartile, household assets, residential area, and religious beliefs.

Others were family ties, including the number of children the participants met or communicated with weekly and job-related demands. They stratified the results of logistic regression analysis based on sex. 

Further, the team constructed a composite variable to capture aspects of WLB, which integrated the number of working hours with the extent of social engagement, specifically informal participation. 

Working hours ranging from zero, <35, 35–54, and ≥55 and the degree of informal participation (once a week or less, month or less, almost every day, or two to three times a week) yielded 12 categorical variables representing different combinations of working hours and social engagement.

Here, individuals who worked <35 hours/wk served as the reference group, with an odds ratio (OR) of work-life balance equal to 1.0. 

Results

In this study, data from 5,751 adults, 2,492 men and 3,259 women, were analyzed. The results revealed that older adults who worked <35/wk and had a higher degree of informal social participation had an OR=1 for WLB. 

Older adults who worked more hours were at a higher likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms.

However, those having longer working hours but exhibiting a high level of informal participation (twice a week) did not experience depressive symptoms. On the contrary, there was no association between formal social engagement and depressive symptoms. 

Overall, the study findings suggested that working tends to have more positive effects than not working at all, and engaging sufficiently in informal social activities helps prevent depressive symptoms.

These are consistent with previous studies suggesting that solid social connections promote psychological well-being and provide emotional support during psychological distress. 

Conclusions

This study underscores the need for a refined theory for WLB for the aged population.

In the older population, a lack of job-related demands and social engagement are the primary causes of a WLB that can trigger health issues, including depression, which requires optimizing both working hours and social engagement to create a work–life “fulfillment” balance.

These WLB characteristics, thus, may help develop socioeconomic policies related to population aging. Future studies should develop a direct and relevant measure of the WLB for older adults.

Journal reference:
Neha Mathur

Written by

Neha Mathur

Neha is a digital marketing professional based in Gurugram, India. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Rajasthan with a specialization in Biotechnology in 2008. She has experience in pre-clinical research as part of her research project in The Department of Toxicology at the prestigious Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI), Lucknow, India. She also holds a certification in C++ programming.

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