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Does workplace stress play a role in retirement drinking?

Alcohol misuse among the retired population is a phenomenon that has been long recognized by scholars and practitioners. The retirement process is complex, and researchers posit that the pre-retirement workplace can either protect against—or contribute to—alcohol misuse among retirees.

The prevalence of alcohol misuse among older workers is staggering. In the United States, the rate of heavy drinking (i.e., more than seven drinks per week or two drinks on any one occasion) among those aged 65 and older is calculated to be at 10% for men and 2.5% for women, with some studies estimating the frequency of alcohol misuse among older (i.e., age 50 and older) as 16% or higher. Yet another study makes the case that 10% of all alcoholics are over 60. As a point of reference, the incidence of frequent heavy drinking in the workforce (US) is 9.2% and rate of alcohol abuse is 5.4%.

Estimates of future problem drinking and predictions of how prevalence rates may rise may be underestimated, not only because of the aging of the population, but also because of shifting societal and cultural norms. There is evidence that individuals follow relative stable drinking patterns as they age. If this is the case, the Baby Boomer generation may show a higher prevalence of alcohol problems as they enter later life than their parents and grandparents. Moreover, some research suggests that the frequency and severity of alcohol misuse may increase in aging populations, especially among individuals with a history of drinking problems.

Recent research has suggested that retirement drinking may be influenced by workplace factors.

Richman, Zlatoper, Zackula, Ehmke, and Rospenda (2006) investigated the role of aversive workplace conditions that could influence drinking behavior among retirees: sexual harassment, generalized workplace abuse, and psychological workload. The analysis of a longitudinal study of employees at a Midwestern university shows that retirees who had experienced high levels of stress drank more than their counterparts who were still employed (and who were still experiencing a stressful workplace). This pattern held even in relation to a comparison between stressed and non-stressed workers. The study suggests that for those still employed, workplace norms and regulations may inhibit the use of alcohol as a means of self-medication in response to highly stressful experiences, retirement removes the social controls that curtailed drinking while the individual was in the workforce.

Retirement of Porter Ted Humphreys, 1968. Public domain via LSE Library.

Bacharach, Bamberger, Biron, & Horowitz-Rozen (2008) examined the role that positive work conditions might have on the retirement-drinking relationship, positing that pre-retirement job satisfaction might interact with retirement agency to affect retirees’ drinking behavior. Using data from a NIH-funded ten-year study of retirement-eligible and retired workers, the research team found a positive association between “push” perceptions and both the quantity and frequency of drinking (though not drinking problems), and an inverse association between “pull” perceptions and both drinking frequency and drinking problems (though not quantity). The study also found that greater job satisfaction amplified the positive association between “push” perceptions and alcohol consumption, and attenuated the inverse association between “pull” perceptions and unhealthy or problematic drinking. This moderating effect of pre-retirement job valence suggests that people who are most satisfied with their jobs are likely to fare worst in response to the stress of a retirement that is unplanned or undesired. Even when retirement is the result of personal volition, it may still be associated with a sense of loss and negative emotions for which alcohol may serve as a coping mechanism.

Bacharach, Bamberger, Doveh and Cohen (2007) examined how the social availability of alcohol in and around the workplace prior to retirement may have divergent effects on older adult drinking behavior. Bacharach et al. found that problem drinkers—after retiring from a workplace with permissive drinking norms—drank less over the first two years of retirement. This population not only left the workplace, but they also dropped their regular association with coworkers who supported and encouraged drinking behavior. The findings suggest that for those with a history of problem drinking, retirement may be linked to a net decline in the severity of drinking problems.

To assess the degree to which this decline in problem drinking may be attributed to separating from a permissive workplace drinking culture, the team examined shifts in the extent of the problem-drinking cohort’s social support networks during the study period. Findings suggest that the decline in problem drinking severity was apparent among those whose social networks became smaller in retirement. Conversely, for the small number whose social networks expanded in retirement, problem drinking severity increased. The nature of the retirement-problem drinking relationship, at least for baseline problem drinkers, may be contingent upon the social availability of alcohol in the work environment from which they disengage.

While there is a lack of research demonstrating the role of strain as a mediator linking these stressors to shifts in older adults’ drinking behavior, a substantial body of evidence examining the role of stress in the origin and intensification of alcohol use and misuse suggests that strain is likely to serve as the intermediary mechanism. To the extent that strain plays such a mediating role, the same network factors are likely to also operate as vulnerability or protective moderating factors in this second stage of the mediation. As suggested by Bacharach et al. (2007), the impact of disengagement-related strain on older adults’ drinking behavior is likely to vary depending upon whether they exit into a non-work social network with more or less permissive drinking norms than those associated with their workplace or occupation.

Recent Comments

  1. David Roppo

    Excellent points. I agree that stress is a driver of alcoholism. Additionally, so are anxiety and depression. Sure, social constraints may stop some from engaging in destructive drinking to self-medicate, although many do so regardless.

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