Labor Day is the holiday specifically intended to celebrate “the strength and spirit de corps” of the working person.
It was dreamed up in the 1880s, and similar worker holidays have spread around the globe. Many workers still get the day off – unless you are in retail!
While we celebrate Labor Day, the fact is our society seems to celebrate the concept of retirement much more.
Most workers sincerely believe work is bad for them: “This job is killing me,” or “this job will be the end of me” are too familiar refrains – at least when the boss isn’t around.
We are conditioned to look forward to retirement – we call them the “golden years,” after all. That might well have been the case when working meant a long day of manual labor in the coal mine or the fish cannery.
But when medicine finally started studying retired people, one thing was immediately obvious: they died more than working people. This didn’t seem like much of a discovery, given that retired people are older, and some retire for health reasons.
But retirement is actually a pretty complex process. Quitting the old 9-to-5 routine involves changes in stress, activity level, diet, sleep, intellectual stimulation, physical and psychological health, and that is just scratching the surface.
Royal Dutch Shell researchers studied 3,500 retirees for whom detailed records of health, mortality data and retirement age were all available.
The most dramatic finding of the study, published in 2005 in the British Medical Journal, was for those who retired at 55 was they had approximately double the mortality rate in the next decade than those retiring at 65. That means for the young retirees, the years 55 to 65 were twice as lethal as the years 65 to 75 for the older retirees.
And the younger decade should be a bunch healthier than the older one. So not only was the death rate much higher, it was higher in younger people who should have been healthier. Counterintuitive, isn’t it?
Circle back to changes. Retired people don’t have to get up early and go face the world; they can sleep in. In fact, the opportunity for naps goes up considerably. This was the point of retirement after all.
But the total activity during the day, when measured scientifically, goes dramatically down with retirement. We retire with plans of playing golf every day and something gets in the way – either the cost, desire or the enthusiasm for the game when it isn’t a special treat. In the end, we move less and die quicker.
A lot of sports, activities and avocations do not respond well to unlimited pursuit. People burn out. Personally, the only activity I have maintained enthusiasm for over the last 40 years is skiing.
I suspect a big part of that is because I can only ski a few precious days each year. A famous entertainer once said: “Always leave them wanting more.”
Work provides more than just some movement in life. For many people, work provides a reason to get up each day. It provides self-esteem, friendships and social contact. It also provides stimulation, accomplishment and an outlet for creativity. Many of our friendships started at work and for some work is the only social contact they get.
So this Labor Day, take a careful look at what you do for a living, and realize this work thing is not simply trading time for money, but how you spend your life.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.