More than able to pull their weight

Forget images of sedate retirement. Older workers are ready and able to fill skills gaps as the average age of the UK’s workers edges ever upwards. Sally O’Reilly reports.

Grey power is already a fact of life in the UK workplace. Over the past 12 years, the number of under-45s at work has fallen by 6%, while the number of workers aged between 50 and 65 increased by 22% between 1992 and 2004.

And with new age discrimination legislation due to come into force this October, more and more employers will be opening their doors to older workers. But what are the implications of changing workforce demographics in terms of workplace health?

The government’s ‘Be ready’ campaign paints a relentlessly upbeat picture, pointing out that 31% of workers over 50 want to go on working after they are 60, and that two-thirds of workers would miss work if they retired today. It points out that older workers are loyal and long-serving, staying an average of 12.8 years in one job, compared to seven years for 25- to 49-year-olds. The impression is of a highly motivated army of over-60s, cycling to work, keen to hone their IT skills.

But of course the situation is more complicated. Not only will this group of workers be statistically more likely to suffer from conditions such as arthritis and heart disease, they may also suffer additional health risks caused by the sheer fact they have been part of the workforce longer than the 40 years that has been the average until now.

According to professor Andrew Watterson of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling, an older workforce will push workplace health higher up the agenda.

“Occupational health (OH) is still a relatively low priority in the UK, but occupationally caused and related ill health is a big problem,” he says. “It should be much higher up the agenda than it is – and older workers may make this happen.”

However, so far he sees little evidence that employers have the resources or commitment to tackle the issue.

“Clearly some companies, especially in the service and retail sectors, have changed recruitment strategies,” he says. “However, OH staff are relatively limited across the UK, and it seems unlikely that services geared to greater prevention will emerge simply because of the demographics of an older workforce.”

Health assessment

This could be an opportunity for HR to step into the gap and ensure that employee health is given more attention. The first priority is to make an accurate assessment of the health of the existing workforce, says Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare at insurance group AXA PPP.

“Employers must be systematic about this,” he says. “First, they should establish the facts about their employees of all ages. Second, they should promote healthy living, again to employees of all ages. Exercise, good diet, sleep Ð all the basics. HR also needs to work with line managers to make sure that health is on the agenda.”

That said, Lusted does not foresee the need for radical workplace adjustments. Over the years, he predicts, employers will have to introduce some new designs for the elderly. For example, strength of grip decreases with age and computer screens may also need to be adjusted.

It’s worth remembering that adjustments that make work easier for older people tend to make it easier for everyone, so the investment could benefit the whole organisation.

Sam Mercer, director of the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), sees the changes in age spectrum at work as an opportunity to revisit workplace health as a whole.

“Employers need to step back and look at the bigger picture, and embrace the opportunities rather than seeing only the problems,” she says. “Then they can decide on the small adjustments that are needed.”

Getting these small adjustments right is important, urges Dr Jenny Leeser, clinical director for Bupa Wellness. Under the Display Screen Equipment Regulations, an employer must provide eye tests for users of display screen equipment and, if necessary, fund corrective lenses that may be required, she points out.

“As people age, the lenses in our eyes stiffen and we are less able to see closer objects. This could affect an older workforce using computer screens and increase the need for the provision of corrective lenses,” she says.

Ahead of the game

Some employers are already preparing themselves for the age discrimination legislation – and the change in workforce demographics that is likely to accompany it. London and Quadrant Housing Trust, for example, has a high percentage of older staff – 28% of its 776 staff are over 50, 26 are aged between 60 and 65 and three are over 65. Group HR director Sally Jacobson believes a good health promotion policy must by definition take into account the needs of older workers Ð and that an increase in their numbers should not cause organisations concern.

“Older people are not ill, they are very good attenders,” she says. ‘There is more sickness among younger people who go out and get drunk.” London and Quadrant does have some health benefits which are particular to older people, such as a £100 contribution towards health screening for the over-55s, access to low-cost insurance, and some adapted office equipment.

It also offers ‘grandparent leave’, so staff don’t just get time off for the birth of their own children – they can help out when their grandchildren are born as well.

Leeser says many organisations could benefit from following the lead of employers like London and Quadrant and Ikea (see case study, below).

“Businesses can review flexible working policies to make these attractive to an older workforce as well as creating a worker-friendly environment for all staff,” she says.

“They can also improve health monitoring to facilitate longer working lives and improve the general health of employees.”

Mercer points out that if employers have effective policies in place, there’s no reason why an older workforce shouldn’t be both happy and healthy. Ultimately, making improve-ments for one group will benefit all staff.

“It’s not about fitting Stannah stairlifts,” she says. “We don’t want to project an image of doddering old people. Who would you rather employ: a 60-year-old marathon runner, or an obese 30-year-old?”

Case study: Ikea

Ikea employs 8,500 people in the UK, almost 1,000 of whom are over 50. UK employee relations adviser, Suzanne Gordon, says the company’s whole workforce benefits from its health promotion policies. She believes this holistic approach should be flexible enough to cater for an ageing workforce – the key is careful planning, flexibility, and a real commitment to employee health.

Gordon’s view is that an ageing workforce is only a problem for employers that neglect healthy living messages and that fail to respond flexibly to the needs of staff, which will vary depending on the stage of life they have reached.

Ikea certainly takes health at work seriously. All staff were presented with a mountain bike to celebrate the millennium, and those who nibble on a salad rather than wolfing down chips eat free of charge in the staff canteen. Employees can also fill in a range of health questionnaires – and try and improve their scores with the help of occupational health staff employed at all branches.

“We are promoting a healthy lifestyle for all our workers, whatever their age,” she stresses. “Health is partly a matter of choice. So we try and make it easier for them to make healthy choices. ItÕs the same message to people at all stages of their life.”

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