Employers are being urged to do more to support older workers after new research revealed that nearly one-third sometimes struggle to catch their breath, negatively affecting their performance at work.
Of 6,732 51- to 60-year-olds surveyed by the British Thoracic Society, 29% said that they experienced breathlessness, with the majority admitting that this had adverse consequences for their work.
This often resulted in extended sickness absence and meant that workers were more likely to retire due to ill health, the study found.
The findings have sparked fears that employers will be ill equipped to support older workers when the default retirement age (DRA) is scrapped next year.
After 1 October 2011, employers will not be able to use the DRA to compulsorily retire employees when they reach 65. If they wish to use retirement ages they will have to be able to demonstrate that these are objectively justified.
Professor Mike Morgan, chair of the British Thoracic Society, said that the research painted a stark picture of the impact of breathlessness on people’s work performance: “With the expectation that people will be working for longer, more needs to be done to ensure that the correct strategies are in place to support older workers who might be affected by respiratory problems, and help them to lead their everyday lives.”
Chris Ball, chief executive of the Age and Employment Network, reminded employers that they have a legal duty to provide a healthy and safe working environment and to identify causes of ill health among employees. However, rather than just addressing the causes of poor health, firms can be part of the solution, he said.
“A number of forward-looking companies are making sure that their employees keep healthy and active, I know of a hospital in Singapore which started a lunchtime walking club for its workers, for example. It was a great idea and takes people out of their work situation and ensures they get exercise.
“If employers can help employees of all ages to achieve good lung and heart health, they are doing themselves a favour, keeping good people able to work longer and, of course, society as a whole will benefit.”
John Read, employment law editor at XpertHR, added: “Employers will need to take account of older workers when complying with their obligations to ensure the health and safety of employees at work, which include carrying out general and individual risk assessments.
“They’ll certainly need to be familiar and comfortable with the process for obtaining medical evidence on an employee’s’ health. And they’ll need to comply with age discrimination law when dealing with all these issues, which is sometimes easier said than done.”