Time to listen up on age-related hearing loss

As our workforce ages, and employers become more reliant on older workers, age-related hearing loss will become an increasingly important health, safety and wellbeing issue. It is up to employers and their occupational health teams to offer better support by introducing workplace hearing screening, argues Neil Pottinger.

There are 23.6 million people aged 50 and over in the UK – that’s a third of the total population. Of these, 8.42 million of those aged between 50 and 64 work. A further 1.13 million aged 65 and over are also employed. In total, they make up 29% of “economically active” people aged 16+.

And this figure looks set to increase even more. With talk of the UK facing a colossal skills gap which is dependent on older workers to fill, they are an essential workplace demographic. As a result, employers are recognising the need to support and invest in older workers.

About the author

Neil Pottinger is sales and marketing director at Starkey Hearing Technologies

Many larger companies are leading the way by signing up to a Government pledge to employ 12% more older workers by 2022. To show true leadership, it is essential the necessary support is in place to commit to this change, including offering better support to those suffering from hearing loss.

A great deal has been said about the HSE’s commitment to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) caused or made worse by work. It’s one focus, for example, of the “Helping Great Britain Work Well” strategy, which encourages more of Britain’s employers to commit to delivering safer and healthier workplaces.

However, no research has really been undertaken on the impact of age-related hearing loss amongst over-55s in the workplace, which is why we commissioned our own.

Tackling age-related hearing loss

It is estimated around 41.7% of over-50-year-olds have some form of hearing loss – and it’s predicted that the ageing population will drive this number to over 15.6 million by 2035, that’s one in five of the population – surely it’s got to be time to tackle these issues head on?

Even the slightest hearing loss can cause issues in the workplace. Apart from potential embarrassment over miss-hearing conversations, not hearing instructions can cause worry and even be dangerous. So, by employers taking positive action to address hearing problems amongst older workers, they can have a very positive impact on an individual’s work performance and safety.

The aim of our study was to determine the impact of hearing deterioration amongst those older workers who may work for another 10 or 15 years. We were keen to find out just how widespread the issue is, how it makes them feel, what their coping mechanisms are and what tasks and activities are most avoided to so that colleagues and employers are not made aware of what is the seen as the secret shame of hearing loss.

The research we conducted – in collaboration with OnePoll – surveyed 800 UK working adults, aged 55+, to determine the prevalence of hearing loss in the workplace and the impact it has. We also spoke to many of our customers about what first made them realise their hearing had deteriorated, how it made them feel and the impact it had on their working lives. We’ve highlighted the stories of two of them at the end of this article.

Effect on productivity and confidence

Six out of ten of those we questioned said their hearing had deteriorated in the last 10 years and, worryingly, it affected their ability to do their job properly.

In terms of how this affected on their professional wellbeing, four in ten said their confidence had dropped as a result, closely followed by reduced productivity and feelings marginalised amongst colleagues.

In order to keep their secret safe from colleagues, almost half said they would avoid using the telephone with one in ten avoiding making and taking calls completely. A third tried to get out of meetings and a quarter said they would even shun socialising with colleagues.

Concerns about a lack of support from their employer were cited as a key reason to keep their hearing loss to themselves for more than half of those we questioned. A similar number said they would be unlikely to confide in colleagues.

Just over half of those polled said having to ask colleagues to repeat themselves was one of the first signs that their hearing wasn’t what it used to be. For four in ten, having to concentrate much harder to follow conversations and increasing the volume of laptops and phones were early indicators.

For a third of respondents it was difficultly hearing on the telephone and 10% said it was colleagues’ comments about having to repeat themselves that brought their hearing loss to light.

In terms of coping mechanisms, almost half of respondents asked workplace peers to speak louder and to say things again. Three in ten said they chose meeting positions wisely and a fifth relied on lip reading to see them through their working day.

Unfortunately, it’s the most ordinary office situations that cause the most difficulties. Over half of the respondents cited general background noise and colleagues not talking clearly as the two most challenging listening scenarios.

Reluctance to seek help

Main concerns for not tackling their deterioration in hearing – by taking a test and investing in hearing technology – were rooted in wanting to look and feel younger and more proficient. Four in 10 respondents said they wouldn’t wear a hearing aid because it would make them look and feel old. A fifth had concerns that colleagues would perceive them negatively.

This comes as a stark contrast to attitudes to eyesight, with 88% of respondents happily wearing glasses or contact lenses to help achieve peak professional performance.

Of these, eight in ten adhered to the recommended bi-annual eye tests. This was a far cry from their attitudes to hearing tests, with only 7% having had one, as recommended, every three years. More than half (55%) of respondents had never had their hearing checked.

We know many people take temporary short-term steps to overcome hearing obstacles at work. But those who have noticed a decline we would encourage to have it checked out.

Hearing well is vital to our health and wellbeing, and today’s technology is so sophisticated, discreet – not to mention compatible with so many of our other devices – that there’s really no need not to hear perfectly well at work.

Despite all of these factors, of the six million English people who suffer significant enough hearing loss in England to benefit from hearing technology, only two million do. This is a somewhat staggering statistic when you consider hearing aids are an excellent intervention for 80% to 90% of cases.

So what are the obstacles? Unfortunately there is no national hearing screening programme for adults in the UK, despite the evidence we have on the impact of hearing loss and the effectiveness of early intervention, which is highlighted in The Action Plan on Hearing Loss for England.

It’s especially effective for those millions of employees who are either unware of their condition or for whom a routine workplace screening test would encourage them to address it. Once aware of their hearing loss, we always encourage people to take prompt action.

Call for employers to provide support

This is why we are calling on more employers and their occupational health teams to better support the increasing number of their ageing workers by introducing workplace hearing screening.

This would not only offer immediate mutual benefits, but also help safeguard a happier and healthier retirement as we know hearing loss leads to a greater risk of dementia, mental health issues, more falls and social isolation.

Research shows that those with hearing loss typically wait up to 10 years to take action. By this time, they’re usually in their late sixties to mid-seventies and hearing issues are substantial. It also means that when they do finally see their GP, the loss may be dismissed as an inevitable consequence of ageing. And if not, they often find it more difficult to adapt to and care for their hearing devices.

And with research from the Action on Hearing Loss charity suggesting that 45% of those reporting hearing loss to their GP are not referred for additional testing, it’s another reason to push for greater screening in the workplace.

By doing so, the health and communication needs of millions would be addressed sooner – prolonging workplace productivity, satisfaction and friendships – not to mention reducing the impact and cost of conditions such as adult onset progressive hearing loss as well as future pressures on health and social services.

There are numerous companies offering UK employers on-site hearing testing services.  They are convenient, simple to engage and cause minimal disruption, with each test lasting just 15 minutes for each employee.

We believe that hearing well in the workplace is essential to leading a productive and fulfilled professional life. Our survey showed that, for many working people, their ability to hear well at work affected their lives and performance at work in a variety of ways.

This is why we encourage both employers and employees to look after hearing in the work place to improve work place productivity and wellbeing. The good news is that today’s hearing technology is now so discreet and technologically advanced that many of the barriers to hearing well in the workplace can be easily overcome.

‘My colleagues often expected that I might need to refer to them on anything I may have misheard’

Bradley Huisman, 50, is a healthcare programme manager for a software company who lives in Horsham, West Sussex

I am responsible for the implementation of patient administration and clinical systems in hospitals. My company’s UK head office is in London, but I am often out and about with clients across the UK and Europe. It’s a very busy role and involves being on the phone a lot – as telephone or conference calls or via my laptop.

In the past – when working with hearing loss – these were extremely stressful situations for me. My colleagues often expected that I might need to refer to them on anything I may have misheard. Not only that, my company is a global organisation and I often have to listen to different accents, which made life with a hearing loss extremely challenging.

Prior to being fitted with my current devices, I wore a set of hearing aids as part of a health trial in West Sussex but support for them had come to an end. Facing a return to a traditional mould and tube style aid, I decided to find a new set to suit my needs.

I went for a hearing test and my audiologist recommended I tried Audibel hearing technology. It was amazing. Using the iPhone integration via the Audibel app, everything I hear is compensated for my loss, and the sound is crystal clear. The feature I appreciate most is the part-muting of external sound when receiving a phone call directly to my hearing aids via Bluetooth. This means I can take calls on a busy street or railway station, a situation that would have been impossible for me to do in the past.

My aids have been a real life-changer. In fact, a colleague I hadn’t seen for a year or so met with me recently and asked if I used to wear hearing aids. When I responded that I still do, she remarked that my voice sounded totally different and altogether clearer. This was perhaps the biggest confidence boost I have received.

‘I used to get home from work and my head would pound from having had to concentrate so hard all day just to hear what people were saying’

Leanne Andrews, 44, is an audiologist at Malmo Hearing in Newport and was previously a callcentre customer service advisor. She lives in Newport, Gwent.

For over a decade I worked as a customer service advisor in a callcentre. It was during the last five years in this role that I really started to notice how difficult it often was to hear, which proved to be very problematic when I was on the phone all day, every day. My hearing capabilities would fluctuate during this time – sometimes my hearing was all right, other times I really struggled.

I started to notice that I couldn’t keep track of the conversations going on around me – at work and socially. Group situations were particularly difficult. I knew I was struggling but I didn’t realise to what extent.

In terms of coping at work, my employer was supportive and I received regular assessments. I found it difficult to hear on a standard headset so it provided me with an in-ear model to cancel out background noise around me so that I could hear callers more clearly. This was, of course, an essential part of my job. However, I found that, being in my ear, the headset exacerbated inner-ear problems and I ended up having more infections than ever.

I used to get home from work and my head would pound from having had to concentrate so hard all day just to hear what people were saying. This continuous struggle made me feel really tense, which in turn made me struggle to hear even more. It was a really stressful time for me.

It was after taking redundancy, going to university and retraining that I finally went for a hearing test. My step-father is an audiologist and I studied audiology to enter the family business in 2010. It was essential my hearing was perfect to do the job.

It wasn’t until I was fitted with hearing devices that I realised just how much I had missed out on over the years. I’d been living with what seemed like a bucket on my head for all that time. It was, in fact, very emotional to be able to interact with such ease and I really wish I’d taken a test and had them fitted sooner.

I now wear Starkey Muse hearing aids. I wear my hair tied back and have no issue with anyone and everyone knowing. Wearing hearing devices has just made my life so much easier. I feel like I’m included and not missing out on what’s happening around me. They’ve changed how I interact and have given me so much more confidence. They’re so comfortable, I just put them in and forget about them – they’ve become my ears.


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