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Lucie Mitchell looks at how, despite reserves of resilience, increasing numbers of older workers are leaving the workforce due to stress, at tackling stigma and creating a safe culture.
The uncertainty and strain of the Covid pandemic has left many workers feeling stressed, anxious and burned out. Research earlier this year by Indeed revealed that 67% of workers believed employee burnout had worsened during the pandemic. Plus, according to a recent survey by Censuswide, 92% of UK GPs have reported a rise in the number of patients seeking help for work-related stress since the start of Covid.
Older workers are just as susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and stressed at work. In fact, the Indeed report found that the pandemic is taking a particular toll on this demographic, with 31% of the over 55s reporting employee burnout, compared to 24% before the pandemic.
Retired academic Bernard H Casey says that an increasing number of older people are leaving work early due to mental health reasons. “In the past, people left work early because of physical conditions. However, now they are doing so for other reasons – and mental health is one of them. One only has to look at statistics on disability pensions. In the
past, one important reason for taking this was muscular-skeletal problems. Now, it is related to mental health issues; indeed, it is the most important reason for being granted a disability pension.”
It’s therefore important that employers are aware of the specific mental health challenges facing older workers. For example, many may find it difficult to overcome the perceived stigma of mental health conditions.
“Though modern workplaces have come a long way in openly discussing and promoting mental health support, older workers have spent a longer time in working environments where this was considered taboo,” remarks Lauren Brownlow, HR advisor at employee stress and anxiety app Companion.
This hesitancy to discuss any issues can then prevent older workers from approaching their employer and accessing mental health and wellbeing support.
“There is a real risk that older, more senior employees may find it more difficult to access support, as they may want to project an aura of infallibility and hide any sense of vulnerability,” remarks Dr Lucy Shoolbred, co-founder and director of Working Mindset.
In addition, work-related stress may be further compounded if older employees are dealing with strain in other parts of their life.
“Where older workers may face additional challenge is when they are navigating stress and burnout in addition to caring responsibilities, be it for elderly parents, grandchildren or adult children remaining in the family home longer; ill-health in either themselves or family members; or financial insecurity where retirement is looming but does not feel affordable,” comments Brownlow.
“Many older workers will also be experiencing more physical health conditions, and the potential stress of managing a physical health condition may negatively impact mental health,” adds Shoolbred.
Yet while work-related stress can impact older workers just as much as their younger counterparts, Shoolbred cautions against making links between age and burnout.
“The research shows mixed evidence on the association with age, which highlights that it is the work environment that is key,” she remarks. “Some research suggests that job experience and life experience relate to enhanced emotional regulation skills, which are protective when it comes to managing stressful situations.”
Nevertheless, if older employees are exhibiting signs of stress in the workplace, it is vital that employers recognise this and are equipped to provide support.
“It is the responsibility of the organisation, in exercising their duty of care, to upskill management to look out for signs of stress and anxiety and have the tools and strategies at their disposal to address needs within their teams and ensure access to support is available and easy,” remarks Brownlow.
The number one priority, says Shoolbred, is to tackle the stigma about mental ill health and age in the workplace and create a psychologically safe culture where workers feel able to speak up.
“It is essential that we ask our older workforce what specific challenges they face. We need to find effective ways of measuring staff wellbeing. How can we know what we need to do if we haven’t identified the need? Employers also need to address job stressors, as we know this is what makes the difference.”
Employers should invest in a comprehensive wellbeing strategy, that includes an open dialogue about mental health pressures, spearheaded by leadership, adds Brownlow.
“Managers should be developed to understand differing mental health concerns and how to look out for and support these, regularly checking in with team members directly and demonstrating genuine concern.
“Creating a culture of honesty and safety around mental health disclosure requires employees who are confident and empowered to do their jobs well, leadership who demonstrate comfort with their own experience of mental health, and trust in the support that will be provided.”
*Creating an inclusive work culture for all is the aim of the first National Older Workers Week, organised by workingwise.co.uk, which runs from 22nd November. The week will include a series of online events for employers and candidates with leading experts and employers. There will be a panel discussion on the results of our survey of older workers’ experience of Covid and their attitudes towards their working lives, a best practice event on everything from eliminating age bias in the recruitment process to returner programmes and lifelong learning, an event for line managers on managing multigenerational teams and a candidate-focused discussion about finding a job you love. Find out more and register for the free events here.