Creating an age-inclusive workplace

The third of the National Older Workers Week events addressed how to create an age-inclusive workplace, with a focus on culture.

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Read about National Older Workers Week

Creating the right culture for older workers is more important than having the right policies in place, a webinar for National Older Workers Week heard this week. 

The Creating an age-inclusive workplace webinar, sponsored by Aggregate Industries, heard from a range of experts and employers.

Kim Chaplain, Specialist Adviser for Work from Centre for Ageing Better, said the Centre wants to encourage people to work longer, but she said it is clear that the labour market is not working for many of them at the moment. Hence the rising number falling out of the workforce in recent years.  She added that the UK has been very focused for some decades on getting young people into work. That still needs to be a focus, but we also need to look at how to attract and keep people across the age range. Doing so requires a lot of different stakeholders to come together. There are complex reasons why people are dropping out, from health to caring responsibilities, flexible working and more. A lot is to do with workplace culture, added Chaplain. 

Employers can make a difference by giving age a higher priority, by equipping managers with the tools they need to support older workers, by giving older workers a voice and by putting age into the Diversity and Inclusion strategy, said Chaplain.  Good practice is emerging and this is important, given many older workers do not return after dropping out, in part due to bias in the recruitment process, she stated.

One of the elephants in the room, said Chaplain, was that many of the older workers who have dropped out of the workforce are not claiming benefits so are not interacting with their Job Centres or with anyone. New ways of reaching out to them need to be considered, she stated, including starting conversations in a non-aggressive way and showing that older workers are valued and celebrated for their contribution at work. 

Chaplain added that the Government also has a role to play. It has raised the state pension age without putting in any underpinning policies to support older workers. 

Feeling valued

Laurence Gouldbourne, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at DEFRA, said three things are holding back older workers – a sense that they are not valued as well as unhelpful stereotypes; pension-related issues which are about managing employer and employee expectations and providing the support older workers might need to stay in the workplace; and a greater focus on skills. Older workers are often keen to share their knowledge and to learn new skills, said Gouldbourne. DEFRA has a silver surfer club where older workers can learn IT skills in a supportive atmosphere without feeling under pressure.

Alistair McQueen, Head of Savings and Retirement from Aviva, said Aviva estimates that only around 5% of employers have woken up to the need to respond to the ageing worker agenda even though it will not go away and will only become a bigger issue.  “It’s not just about a nice thing to do; it’s something employers need to do for the health of the economy and their business,” he stated. 

McQueen said Aviva had looked at its data on older people in 2018. It found a third of its staff were aged 45 and over and that that was the fastest growing age group in the company. Older workers stayed for 17 years on average, but their attrition rate was rising faster than that for younger people. One in three said age was a barrier at work. That work had led to a change in focus at Aviva: the company’s business manager, for instance, started to see addressing this issue as being about tackling a crucial business risk. “We recognised we were falling short and that a huge amount of talent was slipping through our fingers,” said McQueen.

Aviva decided to change things, for instance, putting the leave they offered carers on the same footing as what they offered parents for childcare. They introduced a day one right to request flexible working. They started asking their staff on an annual basis how they were doing on older workers and they created an Age Diversity Council, with an executive sponsor who could challenge management about issues relating to older workers. Other policies include menopause training and support for men and women and the introduction of a midlife MOT – a two-hour virtual session on wealth, work and wellbeing for all employees aged 45 and over which aims to send out the message that older workers have more to give. That has led to a rise in older workers’ confidence and sense of being valued. Older workers’ participation in training has gone up too as the midlife MOT addresses that.

Squiggly careers

Avelon Thompson, DEI Business Partner at Mediacom, spoke of the company’s support for squiggly careers, based on the work of Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis. “The best career path is not always a straight line,” she said, adding that career progress can be sideways or moving in a different direction. Mediacom has a Generations employee resource group [ERG] which brings together the different generations so they can learn from each other. It’s a voluntary group that came together because they felt that age representation affected all underrepresented groups. For that reason, everyone on the Generations group is a member of another ERG to ensure age is woven into all Mediacom’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work. Thompson mentioned, for instance, work done on microaggressions which showed how age-related microaggressions are often written off as banter, although they affect people’s day to day sense of confidence.

The Generations group also share stories about their squiggly careers. In addition, Mediacom has launched a returner programme for women with WPP and Brixton Finishing School called Visible Start and is just working with its second cohort. That aims to improve the hiring of older workers who have left the industry.

Nick Smith, Talent and Development Manager at Aggregate Industries, said Aggregate Industries had also asked their older workers what they want and has focused on subtle changes, such as ensuring the language used in job adverts is not ageist and using images in all marketing that promote a range of ages. Forty per cent of its workers are over 50 and it is keen to ensure they feel they can continue to develop, with the focus being more on job fulfillment than progression. That might include training as a mental health first aider or joining an affinity group. “It’s about making people feel valued and enriched at work,” said Smith.

Aggregate Industries also offers many apprenticeship opportunities and older workers work on the programmes to pass on their knowledge.

Culture is key

For Chaplain, culture is key to age diversity. She added that a lot of HRs view Diversity and Inclusion work as a hierarchy with age being at the bottom. Thompson said storytelling was one of the ways Mediacom addresses culture. They have created an inclusion gallery of people’s stories. For McQueen it is not so much about policies as about the kind of things line managers are saying, for instance, if, through throwaway comments they give the impression that older workers’ careers have flatlined. Gouldbourne said DEFRA is putting an emphasis on transferable skills that enhance people’s experiences not just of work, but of their relationships with others.

There was also a discussion about how employers can partner up with experts in areas such as financial wellbeing to help deliver information that might be of use to an older age group. The issue of line manager training was also brought up. Smith said sensitive conversations often had to be had, particularly for those doing physical jobs in construction, and these could lead to signposting to occupational health and other support. Thompson spoke of the importance of  managers understanding the different needs of their team members and said inclusion and belonging were part of the retention agenda while Gouldbourne emphasised the importance of developing managers’ listening skills so they can check up on people without seeming to be intrusive.

Thank you to all our sponsors and supporters during National Older Workers Week; Phoenix Group, Aggregate Industries, David Lloyd Clubs, City & Guilds, Zurich, Allen & Overy, NHS Professionals, McDonald’s, Institute of Employability Professionals and the Centre for Ageing Better. 

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