The idea of retirement has many men daydreaming of extra time with the grandkids and a few more rounds on the golf course. But for others, retirement can be a time of uncertainty and loss. Older men already have the highest suicide rate in Canada; that risk increases dramatically after retirement.
With a recent Movember Canada grant of $575,255, Western professor Marnin Heisel will explore ways to reduce that risk.
“You’re spending all your time at work; working to try and advance what you’re doing, trying to have an impact in life, and then it all drops out on you,” said Heisel, a clinical psychologist and director of research in the Department of Psychiatry. “For some, they make that transition very well and, over a period of time, do whatever it is they do.
“The other side is, there are people who struggle throughout work, are coming toward the end of their career and, I think, some don’t plan for retirement the way they plan for work. In part, we think of people who are doing well, are healthy mentally and physically, but they come to the end of their work life and are then left to say ‘What do I do next?’”
The average adult spends more than a third of their life at work. So, the workplace has a major impact on many men’s identities, acting as a key source of friends, interests and support, Heisel said. For those men who spent much of their adult lives focused on work, retirement can signify an end to meaningful activity and a loss of social engagement.
One of Heisel’s patients described the transition to retirement as “racing to the edge of the cliff and you get to the end of the line, go right through the tape and off the edge.”
Previous research by Heisel, a professor in the departments of Psychiatry and Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, showed people who experience ‘meaning’ in life are less likely to suffer symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide, even in the face of major transitions. Research also shows enhancing the perception of meaning can have positive benefits for health and well-being.
In this new project, Heisel‘s team will develop community-based groups for soon-to-be or newly retired men to build camaraderie and share ideas about how to find meaning in retirement. Initial groups will take place in London, beginning in the next couple months, with future groups to convene in British Columbia and Alberta.
“We’ll focus on meaning in life, meaning in health, meaning in relationship; what sort of impact have I had on the world,” Heisel said. “Although it’s supposed to be a positive time, you do get a sense there can be a loss involved. Some will find it’s not quite what they wanted it to be; they may need to be helped through some of those issues.
“Work ends, but life doesn’t. Should they find retirement isn’t quite what they were looking forward to, or they just find it a bit daunting and don’t know what to do, this group can help them bridge that gap.”
Heisel anticipates the results of this study may even have positive benefits for health and well-being in the workplace. He believes study outcomes could lead to opportunities for wellness programs that employers can use to enhance mental health for employees approaching retirement.
“It’s something employers tend to be a bit slower to get on board,” he said. “Some are great in that area, but others really don’t think about it. Some of the issues that can actually create or enhance mental health problems have to do with work-related issues – the feeling of being pushed, being treated unfairly.”
Eventually, Heisel would like to create a manual around how to run these sort of groups and encourage others worldwide to do the same, including companies wanting to buy into it as part of their employee retirement packages.