Mending your retirement mentality

You wouldn’t be alone if you admitted to having dreamt about retirement for much of the latter years of your working life. Common to most of us would have been fantasies about escaping the weekly grind, having plenty of time to be with loved ones or enjoy hobbies, and, best of all, sleeping in.

Yet the retirement reality for some newly-minted pensioners is less than idyllic because they have not mentally prepared for the long days, weeks and years ahead that are seemingly without purpose.

A paper published by UK think tank Institute of Economic Affairs in 2013 revealed that retirement increased the probability of suffering from clinical depression by about 40 per cent. Lead author of Work Longer, Live Healthier Gabriel H. Sahlgren reported that results from “two distinct research strategies display large negative health effects of retirement among both women and men. These results are robust, according to a range of alternative specifications.”

Ironically, some caring employers are taking a share of the responsibility for the mental well-being of their staff once they exit the workplace. A SuperFriend program called Mentally Healthy Retirement holds seminars at workplaces for employees nearing retirement age.

The main pillars of the program are to:

  • form realistic expectations about retirement by understanding the link between expectations, satisfaction and wellbeing
  • learn which factors contribute to adjusting well or poorly to retirement
  • understand the importance of planning a mentally healthy retirement (not just financially)
  • learn strategies to foster wellbeing during retirement.


While most of us will not have had the benefit of such a program, former US academic Nancy Schlossberg argues all people can take steps to make the transition to retirement healthier for their minds.

After her own difficult journey into retirement, she spent years studying other retirees and went on to write a number of books, including Retire Smart, Retire Happy.

She believes that people who leave the workplace often struggle with their identity, once they can no longer describe themselves in terms of their occupation.

Those who strive to define a post-retirement identity that provides “structure to their days and meaning to their lives”, will be the happiest, she says.

Many retirees need to define a new mission or purpose for themselves. “You can ask yourself what you wish you had done in your life and turn that into a new focus,” Ms Schlossberg says.

When you finish work you leave behind many relationships. New relationships often need to be forged to take their place. She suggests volunteering or joining clubs as an easy way to begin forming new ties.

Strengthening the bonds in existing relationships with family and friends is another way of avoiding isolation.

Among the strategies for staying sane after a paid career ends, Ms Schlossberg recommends continuing to ‘do’ what you most loved about your job.

“Continuers still use their skills, interests and activities but modify them to fit retirement. I am a continuer. I don’t teach or have a salary, but I still write and speak about things I’ve always been interested in,” she says.

Former employees whose work involved change-making roles can see retirement as an opportunity to make alterations in their own lives. “These are people who start something new. For example, a bank teller might become a docent (tour guide) in a museum. An investigative reporter might become an artist. It is about adventures in new arenas.”

Those whose jobs involved problem-solving can benefit from exploring new options through trial and error. “This means you look into different activities. You talk to people in the fields you’re interested in. You volunteer for different projects or programs, and if you don’t like one, you try something else.”

Did you make firm plans for your transition to retirement? What were some of the ways in which you coped in the early years after finishing up work? What tips do you have for those on the cusp of retirement?

If you’d like to speak to someone at Lifeline, please call 131114. 

Related articles:
Going out of your mind
Understanding anxiety
Handy mental health resources

YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.
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