What factors lead to early retirement due to disability?

The Bottom Line

  • With the growth in the population aged 55+, and a smaller proportion of ‘core’ workers aged 25-54, extending the working life is becoming increasingly important.
  • Having low control over how your job is performed, and experiencing a high level of demand combined with a low level of control, are the factors most often associated with early retirement due to disability.
  • Workplace supervisors and owners need to better understand and address the factors in the work environment within their control that lead to disability retirement.

Finding and keeping good employees is crucial to the success of all types of businesses and the overall economy. And while workforce turnover is a natural occurrence, how the aging population will accelerate this turnover is becoming a worrisome trend.

Shifts in demographics mean there are more and more older people on their way out of the workforce, at a time when there are not enough younger workers to fill the potential voids in labour. In Canada, people aged 25 to 54 – who are considered the ‘core’ working age group – made up just 49% of the population in 2016, a drop of 5% in just 10 years, according to Statistics Canada. That proportion is expected to decline further, to as low as 46% by 2026 (1).

Meanwhile, the proportion of people aged 55 and older continues to grow, and since this age group is less likely to stay in the workforce, this shift in demographics could create challenges for the Canadian economy.

Many other countries face similar challenges, and extending the working life of capable adults is increasingly important for sustaining healthy economies that benefit all citizens.

Some workers end up leaving the workforce earlier than what would have been considered their natural retirement date due to a disability. In these cases, is it possible some of those disabilities could have been prevented through better workplace conditions?

A recent systematic review identified 39 studies that analyzed a variety of workplace conditions. This review compiled information on which psychological, social and organizational factors are most likely to contribute to an employee’s decision to choose disability retirement (2).

What the research tells us

For this review, disability was defined as the general inability to perform one’s job, due to physiological problems, difficulty in performing specific tasks, or problems while participating in tasks or social relations associated with work.

The studies in the review looked at factors such as job demands (both physical and psychological), how much control workers had over how they performed their jobs, monotonous work, social support, working hours, organizational changes such as downsizing, development and training, and imbalances between efforts and rewards.

Overall, the review found that having low control over your work situation was the factor most commonly associated with subsequent disability. Twenty-four of the 39 studies addressed aspects of job control, which pertained to the freedom to choose between alternatives within one’s job. These studies involved a variety of occupations in Nordic countries, including nurses, municipal and civil service employees, waste collectors and farmers. Aspects of job control, such as job-decision latitude and skill discretion, were associated with disability retirement in 18 of the 24 studies.

Job strain, described as a combination of a high level of demand and low level of control, was another significant predictor of disability retirement, according to four of six studies in the review that looked specifically at that factor. However, there was very limited evidence that job demands in general predicted disability retirement.

One finding that may seem surprising to some was that there was limited evidence to suggest that evening and night work, shift work, or long hours (more than 60 a week), led to early retirement due to disability.

There was also limited evidence that downsizing, organizational change, lack of employee development, repetitive tasks, or effort-reward imbalances were predictors of disability retirement. However, the authors cautioned that additional research may be required to confirm these findings.

The results of this review illustrate that there are many factors that can play a role in an employee’s decision to leave the workforce early due to some form of disability. Some of these factors could be mitigated through supervisors, workplace leaders and business owners becoming more aware of and implementing changes to the working environment.

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Author Details


  1. Statistics Canada. The impact of aging on labour market participation rates [Internet]. Government of Canada, Ottawa: Canada, 2017. Available from: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-006-x/2017001/article/14826-eng.htm
  2. Knardahl S, Johannssen HA, Sterud T, et al. The contribution from psychological, social, and organizational work factors to risk of disability retirement: a systematic review with meta-analyses. 2017, BMC Public Health; 17: 176.

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