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Shed workers

Teaching psychological and emotional support can help people to a good later life

We all experience transitions in later life. Employers can equip and support their workers to deal with them.

Aideen Young, one of our Evidence Managers, explains how group-based courses providing psychological and emotional support were evaluated, and how they could be rolled out by employers in future.

Transitions such as divorce, retiring from paid work and becoming a carer can have a major impact on people’s lives and their wellbeing.

Though all sorts of transitions happen throughout our lives, some become more common from mid-life onwards. And even though they can be difficult and trigger various negative consequences, they receive little attention and certainly nothing that aims to prepare people to successfully navigate them.

But we now know that it is possible to prepare people for later life – and its transitions – through courses that provide psychological and emotional support.

In partnership with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) UK Branch, the Centre for Ageing Better has just completed the evaluation of two such courses. We looked at Working Longer and Living Life to the Full, a two-day course run by Chesire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (CWP), and Changing Gears, a three-day course run by Age & Opportunity in Dublin, Ireland, both funded by CGF as part of its Transitions in Later Life (TiLL) programme. The courses were provided to people aged 50 and over working in a healthcare setting and used practices such as group dynamics to facilitate peer support and learning; therapeutic techniques for building resilience (drawing on mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy and meditation); reflective journals; and life satisfaction audit tools.

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.
People had improved well-being and were more optimistic

Our evaluation showed that the courses had a positive impact on a number of traits indicative of outlook and attitudes – improved well-being, self-kindness, attitudes to retirement and attitudes to ageing. Importantly, those course participants who had the lowest scores on these attributes to begin with showed the biggest improvement.

Both TiLL courses have modules on cultivating optimism, on the premise that optimism, like resilience, is modifiable and is a skill that can be learned. And in interviews conducted as part of the evaluation, participants did speak about having increased optimism for the future. This is interesting in view of a newly-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, even extending to life expectancy.

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. And they 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.

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 their highly skilled staff is an issue for the trust and there is growing recognition of the need to address employee retention.

Recent analysis of official figures by NHS Digital shows that NHS workers take an average of 14 sick days per year compared to a national average of four. This led the deputy head of health at Unison to remark 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.”

Our evaluation measured levels of job involvement (that is, how invested people were in their jobs) before and after participating in the courses. We found a decline in job involvement (among people with the highest levels to start with (those most at risk of burnout), but an improvement among those with the lowest levels to start with (those most at risk of quitting their jobs). This may signify an 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.

So, TILL-type courses result 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 aging well toolbox

Mid-life support: Insights for employers

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Navigating later life transitions: An evaluation of emotional and psychological interventions

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Aideen Young
Evidence Manager