What happens to your brain when you stop working

Written by Laura Dowse

Most people know they will stop working one day. But they haven’t thought about what they’ll do instead. It’s a shock to the system for many people, and their brains can start to do some weird and wonderful things.

Researchers in Massachusetts, America, have found that two big things happen to the brain when people retire.

1. People reorganise their entire lives

People organise their lives around the places they spend their time, the things they do and the relationships they have.

Maybe they go to work on Monday to Friday, do the food shopping on Thursday evening and always have the family over for a roast on Sunday.

Most of these things change when people retire. This means they need to reorganise their lives. First, they have to decide when and how to stop working. Then they need to forget about work and focus on other things. Eventually, they’ll get into a new routine.

Maybe they’ll go to a pottery class at Tuesday lunchtime, do the food shop on Wednesday morning and meet friends for brunch on Friday.

To make this reorganisation a bit easier, people could gradually reduce their working hours before they stop completely. This would give them a chance to slowly reorganise how they spend their time.

2. People redefine who they are

Work can be a very important part of defining a person. Because of this, they can feel like they lose their identity when they retire. If a person has been a teacher for 30 years and then retires, they can’t call themselves a teacher anymore. They need to redefine who they are.

To avoid feeling lost, people could make sure they have other hobbies and activities outside of work that they can keep doing when they retire. Maybe they’re part of a book club, a green-fingered gardener or – unlike me – a brilliant cook. This doesn’t have to stop just because they’ve retired.

How companies can help people get ready to retire

Companies should help employees reorganise their lives before they retire. They could do this by letting people gradually reduce their working hours before they stop completely.

Companies should also help employees define who they are before they retire. They could encourage people to spend time on things outside of work that they can keep doing after they retire.

By doing this, companies are more likely to have productive employees who have a better work-life balance. They’ll also have time to prepare and spread out work before a person retires.

Where to find out more

This research forces us to think about the reality of retiring. What will we do, and who will we be, when we stop working?

It can be a scary question. That’s why it’s best to be prepared, and at least know that it’ll be a shock to the system when we stop working.

An interview with Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School who was involved with the research, is on the Harvard Business Review.

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