Working in later life: Supporting the health of older employees

Lucie Mitchell investigates how employers can best support older workers when it comes to health issues.

Team Meeting


Read about National Older Workers Week

With an ageing population, many more people are now working into later life. This can, of course, bring various health benefits to older workers, such as a sense of purpose and belonging, maintaining social connections and keeping active.

However, working longer can also throw up some health challenges, and employers have a role to play in supporting better health and minimising the risk of older employees being pushed out of the workplace prematurely because of poor health.

A TUC report earlier this year found that one in eight people in the UK are forced out of the labour market before state pension age, due to ill health. Plus, poor health is a huge cost to the UK economy, with a recent report by the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI) revealing that ill health in the working age population costs the UK around £300bn per year in lost economic output.

“As we get older, we’re increasingly likely to develop a long-term condition, and for some it can be a challenge to balance staying in work with managing these conditions,” remarks Emily Andrews, deputy director of evidence at Centre for Ageing Better. “Ill health is the single biggest factor that pushes older workers out of work before they reach retirement age. Without flexible or preventive measures in place, it becomes increasing likely that this group will continue to be pushed out.”

 A positive or negative impact?

There have been a number of studies on whether working longer has either a positive or negative impact on health. For example, a paper published recently by the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield, looked at whether working later would lead to people being in better or worse health than those who retire.

The research found that working for longer can benefit people’s overall self-rated health, but the effects on mental health and physical health are less clear, says lead author and senior research fellow Dr Susan Baxter.

“For some people their mental and physical health will be unaffected, but for others there might be an adverse effect,” comments Dr Baxter. “Working longer seemed more often to be a positive thing for the health of men rather than women, but for everybody, reducing working hours from full time to part time tended to be healthier when working beyond the current retirement age.”

The research also revealed that those in poorer quality jobs, in routine or manual employment or on low pay will face particular challenges when working longer.

Employers must therefore recognise that, for some of their older workers, working into later life could be having a negative impact on their health.

“Having adequate systems in place to recognise when older employees are facing challenges is key to supporting the good health of older workers,” points out Dr Baxter. “The quality of a job is likely to be a key factor in determining whether extended working life has a positive or detrimental effect on an individual’s health. Employers therefore need to enable their older workers to have some control over their work, where possible, and ensure that working conditions are optimal.”

Employers must ensure they are addressing the requirements of their employees, adds Andrews. She says: “They can do this by offering access to flexible working arrangements and taking preventive action to support good health in the workplace. Regular workplace assessments must become common place, and not just in order to tick a box.”

As well as offering flexible working, it’s essential that all line managers are trained to provide support where necessary.

“Managers should be fully trained on how to support older employees and ensure that an inclusive culture is adopted,” advises Katie Fletcher, senior HR projects adviser at Howarths. “This type of management training, and what is involved, would vary dependent on the organisation. However, some key areas might look at what it means to be an inclusive manager, the role of managers in building inclusive teams, how to empower managers to lead diverse teams and how managers can best support employees.”

It’s also a good idea to have regular open and honest conversations with their employees to discuss the physical demands of the role, says Gwenan West, head of people and talent at CIPHR. “If possible, involve an occupational health specialist, and, where feasible, re-evaluate the role to create a more even mix of duties rather than a purely physical role.”

Promoting good health

In the wake of the pandemic, it’s even more vital that employers offer support to their older workers, many of whom may be clinically vulnerable. As a consequence, there has been a growing interest in the role businesses can play in promoting good health in the working age population.

A joint initiative by Business for Health and the CBI – Business for Health Framework: Supporting businesses and employers in their role to enhance and level up health of the nation – is being launched in October to support businesses in contributing to a healthy population.

“Without new approaches, costs of age-related disease and social care will escalate, and the quality of life will worsen for a significant sector of the population,” remarks Tina Woods, CEO of Business for Health. “Businesses can do more in preventing ill health by providing environments that promote healthier behaviours and reduce work-related stress.”

This applies to organisations of all sizes, she adds. “SMEs may not have the staff flexibility and budgets for employee health and wellness programmes like the big corporates do, but they can offer flexible hours, hybrid working arrangements, re-skilling, re-training, time off for caring responsibilities and provide environments that promote healthier behaviours.”

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