Older Adults, Employment and Mental Health: The Issue

Excerpt from Mental Wellness in Seniors and Persons with Disabilities – Employment Backgrounder: Lili Liu for Alberta Health Services, 2009, retrieved March 2009

This literature scan examines employment issues and mental health in two populations: seniors and persons with disabilities who have mental health issues. Employment issues refer to gaining or maintaining employment. The following questions provided guidance in the literature scan and are reviewed at the end of the paper.

1) What kinds of supports for employers and employees can be provided to assist in gaining and maintaining meaningful employment for seniors, and people with cognitive and/or physical disabilities who have mental health issues? Have legislated employment solutions in other jurisdictions been proven to work?
2) How can mental illness pose challenges to gaining and/or maintaining employment by seniors and persons with disabilities? (e.g. stigma, self disclosure).
3) Which indicators are appropriate for evaluating “satisfying” or “meaningful” employment for seniors and people with disabilities who have mental health issues?

The number of people aged 55 to 64 is at its highest, nearly 3.7 million in 2006 and consist of 16.9% of the working-age population, or about one worker in six, compared with 14.1% in 2001 (Statistics Canada, 2007). This proportion is projected to be over 20% of the working-age population by 2016, when one in five workers will be in the 55 to 64 age group. As workers generally leave the workforce between the ages of 55 and 64, the number of Canadians close to retirement is higher than ever. In 2006, the ratio of the number of people entering the labour market (15 to 24 years), to the number of people retiring (55 to 64 years) was 1.1. This ratio has declined from 2.3 in 1976. It is projected that in 10 years, the number of Canadians at the age when they can leave the work force will exceed the number who can begin working (Statistics Canada, 2007).

While the average age of retirement has declined, the variability of retirement age has been increasing; in addition, approximately one third of older people become reemployed after they retire (Marshall, 2001). Literature shows that challenging, nonalienated work among older adults is associated with less emotional and physical distress, whereas work stressors were correlated with “less hopeful outlook and poorer quality of life” (cited in Marshall, 2001, p. 433). There is very little research that examines the role of work conditions, such as technological innovations, on the health of older workers (Marshall, 2001)

The unemployment rate among people with mental illness ranges from 70-90% (CMHA, n.d.). This is a serious issue because many people with a mental illness want to be gainfully employed (Liu et al., 2007). The Canadian Mental Health Association (n.d.) states, “of all persons with disabilities, persons with mental illness face the highest degree of stigmatization in the workplace and the greatest barriers to employment”.

Factors that contribute to barriers to employment include “gaps in work history, limited employment experience, lack of confidence, fear and anxiety, workplace discrimination and inflexibility, social stigma and the rigidity of existing income support/benefit programs” (CMHA, n.d.). Not only is productive work believed to “promote positive mental health”, but “meaningful, paid work is a basic human right for every citizen, and those who experience serious mental illness should have equal access to the fundamental elements of citizenship which include: housing, education, income and work … each individual has the right to be employed in a mainstream job, rather than being labeled as a client in a training program or a sheltered workshop” (CMHA, n.d.).


Seniors Mental Health, Disabilities and Employment – A literature scan examining employment issues in relation to seniors and persons with disabilities who have mental health issues.