Ageing workforce means rethinking expectations of “working life”

Interest rates have now been at a record low for seven years in a row, with no end in sight. What’s that got to do with workplace health? It’s forcing more workers to carry on working longer, and into older age, and as a result employers are having completely to rethink what’s meant by “working life”.

 

Earlier this month (April) the Bank of England, to no one’s great surprise, maintained UK interest rates at their record low of 0.5%, so rates have been rock-bottom now for seven consecutive years, since 2009. Think about it: Labour was still in power, Woolworths was in the process of disappearing from the high street, Andrew Strauss had just been made England cricket captain, and the hot tip for the Oscars was Slumdog Millionaire. It’s really that long ago.

What’s more, with the continuing wobbly state of the global economy, there’s little, if any, sign that interest rates are going to be heading north anytime soon, with some economists predicting low rates will continue for years yet, and may even become a permanent fixture on the landscape.

But what’s this got to do with workplace health? A lot – when you consider the corrosive effect low interest rates have had on savings, pensions and annuities and, therefore, the ability of employees to retire.

The insurer Canada Life warned this month that continuing low interest rates were forcing more and more employees to push back their retirement plans and carry on working beyond 65. Two thirds of employees said they now expected to work beyond the “normal” retirement age, it suggested.

This, in turn, will bring with it new health challenges for employers, as Paul Avis, marketing director of Canada Life Group, highlighted. “An older workforce – be it out of choice or financial necessity – brings with it many benefits, such as a wider skillset and breadth of experience. Employers also need to factor in a larger number of health issues, with older workers more likely to experience illness or injury.”

Of course, this “greying” of the workforce is well-documented. A poll by consultancy firm Portus Consulting in December, for example, came to exactly the same conclusion as Canada Life, arguing two thirds (66%) of workers now fully expect that they’ll have to work beyond the age of 65. More than one in ten (11%) anticipate they will be working beyond 76 or may even never be able to afford to retire, it added.

Nevertheless, this demographic trend potentially has profound ramifications for employers and employment – both for older workers but also, it mustn’t be forgotten, younger workers trying to get a foot on the career ladder.

It is also likely to mean employers will have to rethink what’s meant by a “working life” and what we mean when we say an employee – who is perhaps carrying a range of ongoing or even chronic age-related health conditions – is “fit” to work.

As the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has argued in recently updatedworkplace guidance around the health and wellbeing of older employees (or those aged over 50), employers are going to have to come at this issue from a number of different directions.

The NICE guidance recommends employers will need to:

  • Treat employees on an individual basis, avoiding stereotypes, such as the assumption that an older employee may find learning new tasks difficult or a younger employee is less dependable.
  • Offer and encourage older employees to undertake training if their job role changes, or if they may have received education and training some years ago.
  • Help older employees to access health and screening services, such as cervical screening and eye tests, and allow time off to attend appointments.
  • Address key life stages or events that may affect an older employee, such as offering carer’s leave or flexible working to care for grandchildren or parents.

 

As Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive and director of health and social care at NICE, has argued: “The number of older people in employment is set to increase – people are living longer and will be working well into their 60s and 70s. Protecting their health and wellbeing is essential if we are to maintain a healthy and diversified workforce.”

Managing the ageing of our workforce, it is clear, is going to require a significant rethink on many levels, around training, flexible working, general management attitudes and preconceptions (both day-to-day and in terms of retirement) as well as health support and provision.

Welcome to the new paradigm.

 

Author: Nic Paton, BHWA blogger and news team. Please send your feedback to news@bhwa.org.uk

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