How occupational health can support older workers


Occupational health can play a significant role in supporting employers in proactively providing a healthy working environment for older workers. Simone Lewis investigates. 

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2013), for the first time the UK’s workforce includes more than one million people aged over 65. The “baby boomer” generation of the 1950s and 1960s means that we can expect to see a 49% rise in over-65s over the next 20 years, although, of course, not all of these people will be working. ONS figures show that one in 10 people over 65 are working – of which 615,000 are men and 388,000 are women.

There are other issues driving an increase in the number of over-65s in work. The Government’s decision to raise the retirement age to 68 for both men and women (and with this figure likely to rise as the Government regularly reviews the situation) has induced the need for people to work longer (Salgren, 2013).

Older workers and the law

  • Age is a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act 2010.
  • The Equality Act prohibits direct discrimination (which includes discrimination by association and discrimination by perception), indirect discrimination, victimisation
    and harassment.
  • Direct discrimination is where, because of the protected characteristic of age, a person treats another person less favourably than that person treats or would treat other people. The less favourable treatment can relate to the person’s actual or perceived age, even where the perception is wrong,
    or to the person’s association with someone who has, or is perceived to have, the protected characteristic.
  • Indirect discrimination is where person A applies to person B, to B’s disadvantage, a provision, criterion or practice that A applies or would apply equally to persons not of the same age group as B, but which puts, or would put, persons of the same age group as B at a particular disadvantage when compared with other persons and which A cannot show to be a proportionate means
    of achieving a legitimate aim.
  • Under the Equality Act 2010, it is possible for employers to justify both direct and indirect discrimination.
  • Employers may, in certain circumstances, lawfully restrict a job to people of a particular age group.
  • The Employment Equality (Repeal of Retirement Age Provisions) Regulations 2011 came into force on 6 April 2011, abolishing the default retirement age of
    65 and the associated statutory retirement procedure. Accordingly, except where transitional provisions apply, employers cannot dismiss on the ground of retirement without this being regarded as direct discrimination or unfair dismissal, unless use of a compulsory retirement age is objectively justified.

Adapted from XpertHR.

Pensions and savings have been affected, with poor returns on investments, meaning that people cannot afford to retire, but are instead being forced to work longer and save while they are still working (Paton, 2013). Saga (2013) adds that some people also choose to continue working to maintain daily interaction because they are no longer tied down by the retirement age of 65, which was abolished in 2011.

However, in 2012, the TUC responded to the Government’s decision to raise the retirement age, suggesting that this would force older people with associated health problems to “work themselves into the ground”. This would ultimately lead to an increase in sickness absence and incapacity, putting further strain on an already overburdened NHS. Improving the health of older workers may require an increase in the public funding of the NHS in response to the extra demands. The King’s Fund (2013) approaches this more positively, stating that in any NHS funding longer-term healthcare will ultimately improve workforce activity and create a stronger economy. Thus, it is important to focus on the relationship between the ageing workforce and good health.

Paton (2010) advises that there will be an increasing number of workers with chronic conditions, or with a certain level of ill health, and how employers support them will be crucial.

Occupational health professionals have an important role to play and they will be in demand to advise employers about the best ways to support their staff and get them back to work (Ilmarinen, 2006; Crawford, 2005; as cited in McDermott et al, 2010).

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) (2014) paper Fuller working lives focuses on the ageing workforce and how businesses can take the initiative in ensuring an older person can continue to work into old age.

How does ageing affect health from an employer’s perspective?

Obvious signs of ageing are clear, such as greying hair, wrinkles and reduced energy; however, the following points outline some of the more serious issues relating to work ability:

  • Perry (2010) suggests that physical strength reduces by between 25% and 30% by the age of 65, along with a decrease in flexibility of between 18% and 20%. By 65 years of age, one-third of people suffer a fall each year. All aspects of vision deteriorate and reaction time decreases. Hearing is also affected in one-third of 65-year-olds, motor skills deteriorate and body fat increases.
  • From a physiological perspective, by age 65 there is a 40% decrease in oxygen exchange and respiratory function is reduced by 25%. By age 70 this is reduced to 50%. The cardiovascular system works between 15% and 20% less efficiently. Systemic blood pressure increases, fatigue comes on more rapidly and older workers can find extreme temperatures more difficult to cope with.
  • Psychological changes by age 65 mean that older workers are better suited to morning work and less shift work. More structure is required in training and learning and disengagement is more likely.
  • There is a lack of real research to confirm whether or not there is cognitive decline in the older worker, but laboratory studies show that some cognitive decline is likely as people age. It could be argued that what older workers lack in cognitive ability is replaced by their well-established skills (Griffiths 2000).
  • However, research carried out by Kodz et al (1999), cited in Turner and Williams’ 2005 report by The Work Foundation, suggests that older workers are knowledgeable and reliable with good customer care skills and are more committed to their role.

Ergonomic factors to consider

The main issue faced by employers and OH is the design of workplaces and how adaptable they are to the older worker. Older employees face certain vulnerabilities and employers have a duty to take reasonable care for their health and safety as much as they do for younger workers (Health and Safety Executive, 2014). Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers should carry out appropriate workplace risk assessments, while also identifying workers who may be at increased risk of accidents. This could include older workers.

In addition, perceptions of workers that their workplace is not adaptable to them may result in stress. Employers will need to ensure that participation by employees on what the perceived stressors are, by way of a stress risk assessment, is undertaken.

Helping older workers in future

Redesigning the workplace to accommodate the needs of older workers is crucial and will lengthen their career. It will also provide the organisation with the employee’s knowledge and experience, along with their maturity and reliability.

Workplace modifications, job redesigns and accommodations will be needed and OH advisers will have an important role in supporting managers. Regular reviews and workshops engaging older workers will help to identify problems and rectify issues in a timely manner.

Using older workers’ experience and knowledge and utilising them as mentors may reduce the potential impact of the more ergonomic issues and allow them to take other roles within the organisation that will contribute to an efficient workforce.

Training management to look out for the signs of chronic illnesses (which are more likely with older workers) and ensuring that a robust absence-management policy is in place will be necessary.

OH will need to support employers in developing interventions that support staff with chronic health conditions, in order to help reduce long-term or recurrent short-term sickness. Removing the barriers by taking steps to support chronic conditions will promote a healthier, less stressful and more productive older workforce.


Department for Work and Pensions (2014). “Fuller working lives – a framework for action”.

Griffiths A (2000). Designing and managing healthy work for older workers. Occupational Medicine; 50, (7), pp.473-477.

Health and Safety Executive (2007). Health and safety for older workers.

Ilmarinen J (2006). “The ageing workforce – challenges for occupational health”. Occupational Medicine; 56, pp.362-364.

McDermott H, Kazi A, Munir F, Haslam C (2010). Developing occupational health services for active age management. Occupational Medicine; 60, (3), pp.193-204.

Office for National Statistics (2013). Labour market statistics.

Paton N (2010). “Tipping the scales”. Occupational Health, vol.62, no.8.

Paton N (2013). “Working age considerations”. Occupational Health, vol.65, no.9, pp.15-17.

Perry L (2010). “The aging workforce”. Professional Safety; 55, (4), pp.22-28.

Saga (2014). More than one million over 65s are still working.

Salgren O (2013). “Work longer, live healthier: the relationship between economic activity and government policy”. IEA discussion paper.

The King’s Fund (2013). Spending on health and social care over the next 50 years.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, No.3242.

TUC (2012). Half a million people approaching state pension age are too ill to work.

Turner N, Williams L (2005). The ageing workforce. The Work Foundation.

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