It’s good to talk: how emotional support can aid later-life planning
At our breakfast debate in November we explored the role of individuals, employers and policy makers in supporting people to plan for life beyond 50.
In this blog, our Evidence Manager, Aideen Young, talks about the importance of psychological and emotional support in preparing for later life.
Though all sorts of transitions happen throughout our lives, they do become more common from mid-life onwards. Some, such as divorce, retiring from paid work and becoming a carer can have a major impact on our lives and wellbeing. And even though they can be difficult with a range of negative consequences, little is done to help us to successfully navigate them.
Many employers offer their staff support around some practical issues, such as personal finances and pensions, that are important to deal with as we get older. But the need for psychological and emotional support to manage later life transitions is almost always overlooked.
At the Centre for Ageing Better, we decided to look more closely at this important issue. In partnership with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) UK Branch, we evaluated two workplace courses - Working Longer and Living Life to the Full run by Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (CWP), and Changing Gears, run by Age & Opportunity in Dublin, Ireland.
Both courses used practices such as group dynamics to facilitate peer support and learning; therapeutic techniques for building resilience including mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy and meditation; reflective journals; and life satisfaction audit tools.
People had improved wellbeing and were more optimistic
Our evaluation showed that these courses had a positive impact on a number of traits indicative of outlook and attitudes – improved wellbeing, self-kindness, attitudes to retirement and attitudes to ageing. Importantly, those course participants who initially scored lowest on these attributes showed the biggest improvement.
Both courses had modules on cultivating optimism on the premise that, like resilience, optimism is a skill that can be learned. And in interviews conducted as part of the evaluation, participants spoke about having increased optimism for the future. This is interesting in view of a recently-published study, which found that people with greater optimism had a life span 11-15% longer than gloomier people, adjusting for demographics and health conditions. Of course, an optimistic outlook may not, by itself, counter other factors such as poverty, disadvantage and ill-health but all things considered, a more positive and optimistic outlook towards later life and the process of ageing can impact how people approach their later lives and confer significant benefits, perhaps even extending to life expectancy itself.
We found too that the courses had the effect of making participants clearer about their goals for the future in the areas of career, health, learning, finances, relationships, volunteering and hobbies. Participants also took some practical steps following the courses, including talking to family and friends about their plans, taking up exercise, speaking to their line managers and seeking financial advice. The psychological and emotional support offered by these courses appears to give people the tools they need to undertake planning across other areas of their lives.
With an ageing workforce, initiatives that prevent burnout, improve work-life balance and thereby enable employers to retain their skilled workers will be critical to future success.
A route to staff retention?
Besides preparation for later life and the transitions and changes that often come with it, the CWP course providers were interested to see how their course could impact people’s relationships with their jobs. Burnout among highly skilled staff is an issue for the NHS with recent analysis of official figures by NHS Digital revealing that NHS workers take an average of 14 sick days per year compared to a national average of four. There is growing recognition of the need to address employee retention.
Our evaluation measured levels of ‘job involvement’ - that is, how invested in their jobs people felt - before and after participating in the courses.
Those with the highest levels of job involvement at the start of the course – whom we took to be most at risk of burnout – reported a decline in job involvement at the end of the course. And those who began the course with the lowest levels of job involvement – some of whom talked about quitting their jobs – reported an increase in job involvement. This may signify improved work-life balance and, if so, is likely to result in better staff retention. Certainly, participants were very positive about how their organisation supported them to attend the courses and felt that it indicated that they were valued. With an ageing workforce, initiatives that prevent burnout, improve work-life balance and thereby enable employers to retain their skilled workers will be critical to future success.
The deputy head of health at Unison has remarked that “The government urgently needs to invest in the NHS to cut staff shortages and reduce burnout, and workers suffering anxiety, depression and stress must get rapid access to mental health support services.” The courses evaluated can play a role in this: they resulted in improved well-being, optimism, attitudes to ageing and a better work-life balance. They may also be the key to enabling the mid-life planning and preparation that we think is essential if people are to have the later lives they want. This work has shown that courses that provide psychological and emotional support are a key component of the ageing well toolbox.