Twenty years ago, at age 42 and after 22 years of continuous employment, I exited the workforce. I’d been living with a diagnosed illness and then second one for 13 years. But I had never made any conscious choices regarding my career plan based on my increasingly limited health. Now within a matter of weeks, I left a job that I loved because I was too sick to even get myself to work. When I made that decision, and for a short time after, all I felt was tremendous relief that I had at least eliminated one source of stress in my fragile world.
But ‘retirement’ didn’t produce the desired results. Although I had a full and satisfying life with two young children, a husband, friends and extended family, I sorely missed what I no longer had, my life as a ‘worker’. That person had a predictable schedule, daily socialization with colleagues, and was valued and compensated for her ideas and performance.
No longer employed, I volunteered in ways I hoped would be rewarding and give me the flexibility I needed. I found the former but not the latter. I still had to show up when I made a commitment and volunteer work felt like a ‘job’ rather than the career I had always aspired to.
I became desperate to return to the workforce, in whatever way I could. It seemed like my lifeline to improving my overall well being. This time I approached career with care and thought, thinking strategically about my limits and my options and setting clear intention around my purpose.
Over the following years, I developed a business in coaching people with chronic illness around career challenges. My clients’ stories reinforced my own experience regarding the value of working, particularly when you live with chronic health challenges. That notion propelled me to write my book, Women Work and Autoimmune Disease: Keep Working, Girlfriend! While doing research for the book, I found several studies to support my experience that working promotes better psycho/social/health outcomes in those living with chronic illness.
Recently, I found a study that says: retirement results in the ‘drastic decline in health in the short and long term’ Specifically, the study found that:
- Retiring may ‘increase one’s risk of developing clinical depression by 40% and the risk of suffering from a physical ailment by 60%.’
- These risks increase with each year of retirement.
- Researchers recommend that people consider staying in the workforce beyond the average retirement age for health and economic reasons.
Most people who are not at “retirement age” think of retirement as a choice. Unfortunately, too often that’s not the case. Many organizations have mandatory retirement ages and others have ‘expected’ (not required but it’s obvious) retirement ages. If you keep working when you’re an ‘older worker’ and have difficulties doing a job the way you once did, you can easily feel like you’re being forced out.
There are striking similarities among the healthy but ‘aging population’ to those who leave the workforce due to debilitating health problems.
Clearly, it’s a different story if the work you do or the place that you work in is toxic — a highly pressured or extremely negative environment, the tasks are deadly boring or too difficult. If that’s the case, then leaving, even if you don’t have another employment opportunity, may be the best way to promote your well being.
But if you live with a chronic illness, it is typically a gradual increase in symptoms and debilitation. Actual aging is more predictable. It seems that it’s in anyone’s best interest, healthy or not, to look at your future and prepare. Consider all of your options, create plans that offer you flexibility and maximize your sense of resilience — before you reach a dead end.