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Retirement. Occupational Disruption disguised as Liberation?

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

In the last two years of my professional career, working within the diverse practice area of Occupational Health (yes, not a typo) in a UK NHS Trust, I formed a special interest in two areas: Menopause and its effect on our (largely female and middle-aged) workforce - and retirement. The former I feel I have got out of my system; we devised and ran workshops which were oversubscribed and feedback suggested they had been extremely worthwhile. However, my interest in the impact of prospective retirement on individuals has not left me...

At work, I was primarily in post to explore alternative strategies to counselling, with employees who were experiencing a testing time with their mental health. Two people particularly stick in my mind. One who was nearing retirement age and terrified that they may be ‘encouraged’ to go - and another who was over 60, had been transferred into a completely new service area and was struggling with alien systems and processes. She had been referred with the query of early stage dementia. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her self-esteem was at rock bottom and this made her struggle even more, risking ending her successful career as ‘a failure’.

Retirement is heralded as a time to let go of responsibilities, spend time on your own interests and celebrate the end of a working life. For so many, this is not as straightforward as it sounds.

On a personal note, not long after the menopause work ended, I was faced with the transfer of my job to another provider, which would have involved too much travel to be practicable. I was 59 ½ . I decided to retire.

In this piece I would like to pose two questions:

  1. Are Occupational Therapists at an advantage in retirement, with strategies to fill the occupational void that it brings?

  2. Is pre/post retirement a potential clinical area for Occupational Therapists to explore?

18 months before the world was suddenly faced with a devastating change to daily life, I elected to make my leap into retirement with no plan, no party - and the next piece of work I had been intending to start, left on somebody else’s to-do list.

A year to the day after retirement I wrote a reflective piece (published in February 2020's OT News), that was largely covering how I problem solved plunging into new found freedom. It was not an easy year. So much time to fill, friends and family still at work... and after 6 months finding I had more or less established a routine that looked very much like... work! However, by the end of that first year, I concluded:

“I had always assumed, as my professional status was so much a part of my ego and identity, that retirement would be a traumatic event. What I have discovered is that, while I knew professionally that occupation is at the heart of physical and mental health, having a meaningful occupation is what drives and sustains me, rather than being an occupational therapist” (Tomes H, 2020)

A literature search of published articles by Occupational Therapists in the UK revealed very little, with the most recent I found from 2011. This study focused on the occupational transition to retirement and its impact on health and well-being. At that time ‘It would appear that recent occupational therapy retirement research had predominantly taken place in Sweden… and Australia’ (Pettican, A. and Prior, S., 2011), that their own ‘findings suggest that providing pre-retirement and post-retirement interventions may be a future potential area of practise and research for occupational therapists’. I looked up some of their references and found that most studies used subjects in old age – rather than the younger (55yrs+) age, who now are potentially considering retirement. Could intervention at this stage prevent some of the mental and physical health problems in old age? Is the pandemic we are currently living through a catalyst for some who had not previously thought about retiring early?

My experience of a jerky transition into retirement seemed to resonate with some readers, OTs retired/considering retirement, as well as some contemplating a major career change. The overriding theme seemed to be that it was not retirement itself that posed a problem - more the amount of agonising over the decision of when, why and how to retire. I asked all responders if they would like to keep in touch and do some more work on this; when the pandemic struck we were a group of seven OTs, who met regularly by Zoom. From preliminary discussions, it was decided we would devise a guide called ‘How do I make the decision to retire?’ Although concentrating on retirement as the theme, it could have an application to those now faced with other major career decisions.

We would love to share the guide with the wider OT community; it is included as an additional file, at the end of this article.

  • Is it far fetched to presume that many more working people struggle with the idea of their own retirement?

  • Do men really suffer post-work, more than women?

  • Do couples or single people fare better in making the switch?

  • Does a lack of purpose adversely affect mental and physical wellbeing?

  • Is the switch to working from home, for many, a useful portent of what retirement can hold, both positive and negative?

  • Why do retirement and old age seem to get lumped together, when there could be a clear 20+ years between ending work and slowing down?

  • Is this an area of practice that Occupational Therapists are already engaged in? Should they be?

One thing is certain, retirement brings a change of identity. A new normal, to pinch that now familiar cliché. Mine is ‘Adventurer’. Not defined by money (adventures do not need to cost anything) but more by attitude. What is or will yours be?

I am intrigued by retirement being the occupational disruption that almost all working people must face - and that it is portrayed as occupational 'liberation', even though that is not the experience of many. I wonder if retirement is easier or more difficult after a working lifetime of being an Occupational Therapist? I would love to know what you think.

Helen Tomes

Retired Occupational Therapist

The OT Guide to Successful Retirement (H
Download • 4.36MB



  • Tomes, H. (2020) Finding a new occupation in life. OT News 28 (2), 46-47

  • Pettican, A. and Prior, S. (2011) ‘It’s a new way of life’: an exploration of the occupational transition of retirement. British Journal of Occupational Therapy 74 (1), 12-18

Other resources


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