An ageing population can bring business benefits but also has new challenges for healthcare.
As the Government plans to scrap the default retirement age, occupational health practitioners have a responsibility to ensure that the health costs associated with an ageing workforce don’t outweigh the benefits.
In December 2010, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that life expectancy in the UK has reached its highest level on record for both males and females. Assuming mortality rates remain unchanged, a man aged 65 can now expect to live another 17.6 years, on average, while a woman aged 65 can expect to live another 20.2 years.
Unsurprising then, that so many older workers both want or need to work for longer, encouraging the Government to announce plans to scrap the default retirement age in the UK from October 2011.
While it is anticipated that keeping people in employment for longer will inject billions of much-needed extra funds into the economy, anyone who is interested in creating a diverse workforce, and employers that are used to retiring older workers automatically at the age of 65, must think carefully about the healthcare policies they have in place if they don’t want their healthcare costs and insurance premiums to spiral.
Escalating age and costs
The reality is that, while average life expectancy is now well over 85 years for men and women alike, the older we are, the more likely we are to have health problems. The projected loss of national income due to heart disease and diabetes alone is estimated to be £6.4 billion in 2015, compared with £1.6 billion last year.
What might surprise many employers though, is that older workers need not necessarily be unhealthy workers. For example, the World Health Organisation believes that 60% of all diabetes type-2 cases, which are typically linked with older people, can be cured by weight loss alone, irrespective of age.
Supporting older workers to stay healthy is critical to ensuring that their health costs don’t outweigh the huge benefits they can bring, such as the empathy and wisdom that comes with life experience, as well as practical skills and workplace knowledge. The cost of replacing an older worker is 50% to 150% of their annual salary, according to a survey by the Hays Group.
Some companies, particularly in the US, have started paying individuals to complete health assessments, raising the health premiums of those who decline to take part. Such a hard-line approach could do more harm than good by creating a culture where people choose to hide illness, rather than seek an early diagnosis so that appropriate medication and support can be arranged to prevent, diminish or even cure the problem.
It is far better to offer health screening to all workers, with safeguards in place observing the rules of the OH profession, not as grounds for unfair dismissal.
By offering anonymous screening, OH can generate useful data, identifying groups of individuals at risk of everything from back problems to hypertension, without singling anyone out.
Either way, health screening can be justified to individuals by saying: “Yes, this information is valuable to the business, but it’s even more valuable to you. It could extend your life.”
Prevention rather than cure
Employers in the UK have a huge role to play in transforming the NHS from an organisation that primarily treats the sick, to a “national wellness service” that focuses resource on preventing disease and illness from arising in the first place.
Take a typical GP who wants to test everyone’s cholesterol levels. Not only will many people feel uncomfortable going to their local surgery, expecting a long wait in a depressing environment, they might also question if they even need to know their cholesterol level.
Compare this to a voluntary work-screening programme, where employees have to leave their desk only for 15 minutes and can witness colleagues coming out saying “mine was good” or “mine wasn’t so good but they’ve given me loads of advice on what to do”.
Those yet to be screened will not only start to become curious about their own result and will experience positive peer pressure to participate, they will also come to view health screening as a perk they’re entitled to – a payment in kind for their efforts for their employer.
Were the Government to trial the effectiveness of this type of peer-based screening – compared to attempts to convince people to make time to go to their GP or local hospital, or simply waiting for people to fall seriously sick – the cost benefits of early detection and prevention would outweigh the cost of subsidising employers to conduct screening programmes in the workplace.
Until then, employers must be helped to realise that the benefits associated with empowering employees to care about their health, recognise specific problems and take counteractive measures, such as nutrition or exercise initiatives, far outweigh the costs.
By creating an inclusive wellbeing culture, instead of making older workers feel marginalised and singled out, OH can help those who are approaching the former retirement age to realise they stand to gain as much as, if not more than, everyone else by proactively maintaining good health.
Dr Wolfgang Seidl is a medical doctor and BACP-accredited counsellor.