How to prepare for that ‘other’ big life change: Retirement

The transition from a “work-life structure” to a “retirement-life structure” is significant. However, many people don’t consider how best to prepare for retirement beyond ensuring that their superannuation balance is growing.

From early on in our work life, there is a focus on financial planning for retirement. However, while we all contribute to superannuation and build up assets such as paying off the family home, the transition to retirement brings with it many non-financial challenges. Unless there is an opportunity to consider these factors, new retirees can often experience feelings of isolation, boredom and uncertainty that can impact upon their wellbeing.

Organisational psychologist Dr Sarah Cotton stresses that it is important to recognise and understand the importance of planning for a successful transition to retirement. A significant part of this process is simply recognising that our physical and mental wellbeing are just as important as our financial health. “We have to be very intentional about how we are going to maintain our physical and mental health, not just our financial health.”

Create an exercise routine

Retirement from the paid workforce, for example, can have an impact on physical exercise and overall activity levels. Changes to schedules can lead to less daily movement as retirees no longer have to consider work commitments. With larger amounts of free time, people can be tempted to sleep in, relax and put off exercise until later. While many enjoy the flexibility that retirement can offer, others thrive on the structure that work brings – hours are generally set, and work, meal and leisure times are clearly defined – and can struggle with the lack of routine.   

It’s important to consider how you might manage the rhythms of life once retired, and how you might incorporate new activities.  If you don’t currently have an exercise regime, consider how to begin one to ensure that you are maximising your physical health during retirement.  If possible, begin these changes prior to your retirement date so that any new routine is ingrained, and you are more likely to continue it once work has ceased.

Keep on connecting

Cotton notes that lack of support during this time can also be challenging, and cites adequate social and emotional support as particularly important in the lead up to and during the transition period. “Social isolation is one of the biggest risk factors for depression, so investing in your relationships is crucial to good health,” she says.

The work environment provides a range of social opportunities allowing us to connect with others on multiple levels. The workplace is often a safe and familiar space, and co-workers often provide valuable (albeit often unrecognised) emotional support and a social connection due to shared experiences. A sudden (or unexpected) loss of this network can contribute to a sense of loneliness and disconnect.

As Cotton says, “Often people don’t realise the amount of social connection that work brings them and it is not until they retire that they realise how important these relationships were”. Maintaining adequate support during this time of transition is important. Keeping communication lines open with family and friends can help, as can making new social connections and participating in various activities of interest.

In addition to social connection, “we often underestimate the mental stimulation work gives us”, Cotton says, citing recent ABS data which reports that 30 per cent of people who were coming out of retirement (or planning to come out of retirement) did so because they were feeling “bored or needing something to do”.  The work environment generally provides ongoing learning – and room for growth – both important to our emotional and mental wellbeing, and many retirees miss the stimulation that a workplace can provide. Setting new goals and finding creative ways to keep learning are an important part of retirement planning. The University of the Third Age (U3A) provide a great practical example of this.  

Try to stay positive

A positive outlook is also vital in retirement. Cotton encourages people to focus on the opportunities that retirement can bring rather than on what they may have lost. “Reframing the question from ‘What am I retiring from?’, to ‘What am I retiring to?’ can make all the difference.”  Talking to friends and family who have already retired can also provide an important heads-up on other things to consider.

Encouragingly, employers are beginning to recognise the benefits to business in helping to navigate the retirement transition and are starting to offer more support. “Conscious companies understand the importance of supporting people in transition, particularly late-career and retirement,” says Cotton.

Points to consider:

  • Stay connected. Talk to family and/or friends and be open about your needs and wants.
  • Focus on your physical and mental health.  Understand that your overall wellbeing is just as important as your financial health.
  • Engage in new opportunities that will expand your social and learning network.  Find a purpose, create some goals.
  • Identify existing supports such as your friends family and other supports (your GP, a counsellor) that you can connect with if required.
  • Talk to your employer.  Keep the communication lines open and be clear about how you want your transition to look. Ask, don’t assume.
  • Stay informed.  Utilise the resources available and learn more about the best way to approach the retirement journey and maximise this stage of your life.

Rachell Bugeja is project administrator at Transitioning Well, which helps shape and support parental leave, work-life and mature-age transitions and provides services to fit the needs of organisations and employees.

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