Last reviewed 29 June 2022

Everyone ages and as the UK’s population becomes proportionally older, so too will the workforce. Laura King looks at inclusive policies that support an older workforce.

The UK’s population is changing, and with it, the demographics of the workforce. Since the 1950s, average retirement ages have been increasing and the population has been getting older; a trend that is set to continue.

These changes have led to changes in policy, such as the removal of the default retirement age and an increase in the age at which you can claim a State Pension. But, although these policy changes are often touted as positive signs that people are living longer and healthier lives, there is also an increasing trend for people to leave the workforce before retirement age.

For example, a recent report by the TUC looking at employment trends since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, found that the number of people not working in the UK labour market was increasing. The change was primarily driven by two groups; younger people delaying work in favour of education and those over 50 leaving the workforce. For those over 50, the top two reasons were retirement, closely followed by long-term sickness or disability.

Looking more closely, the TUC found that the impact of ill-health on the decision to carry on working fell disproportionately depending on occupations and ethnicity. For example, black and ethnic minority (BME) employees were much more likely to retire early due to ill-health. Similarly, the analysis found that while only 10% of former managers and professionals left work before state pension age due to ill-health, in lower paid jobs the figure rose to 40%.

The sharp rise in those over 50 leaving the workplace has been one reason for the current labour shortages and highlights the need for workplaces to retain and attract older employees. Although ill-health is not universally thought to be a primary driver for the rise in older people leaving work, clearly addressing occupational health and safety would also go some way to reducing future labour shortages.

Myth-busting and misconceptions

Indeed, although the TUC report found that ill-health was a clear reason for leaving work, this should not necessarily be the case in any industry. Certainly, in its guidance on age in the workplace, the Health and Safety Executive makes it clear that:

  • over-50s are not necessarily burdened with ill-health, with 62% of over-50s describing themselves as being as fit as ever

  • cognitive abilities for health and safety do not show any marked decrease until after the age of 70

  • there is no evidence to suggest that older workers have an increased risk of occupational accidents, although accidents that do occur tend to be more serious.

A report by the BMA also found that the “relationship between age, health and employability appear to be weak”, summarising that:

  • the impact of ageing is minimal among those of working age — and that in most jobs, declining health should have no impact on the work as reasonable adjustments can be made

  • chronological age is not the most important determinant of health

  • the risk of long-term conditions may increase with age, but the majority of workers are in good health and people with long-term conditions can still work

  • the demands of the work and other psychosocial factors are likely to have a bigger influence on developing work-related ill-health.

These findings clearly indicate that age should not matter; a generally healthy workforce working for an employer that proactively manages health, safety and welfare throughout their careers will be much more able to work into later years.

Health and Safety actions

Age is only one element of a diverse workforce, and so health and safety-related risk assessments are not specifically required for older workers and — as highlighted by the BMA — assumptions should not be made based on someone’s age as a range of factors will impact on health.

However, as we age, our bodies undergo changes and, in some cases, people may need additional training or adjustments to work. Managing these changes is part of the workplace’s duty of care. Furthermore, as the TUC report found, retirement due to ill-health is disproportionately found in some industries. Here especially, risk assessments should be carried out routinely and adjustments should be made based on individual and business needs.

Other age-related health and safety considerations include the following.

  • There is some evidence to suggest that older workers experience more slips trips and falls. These can be prevented through business-as-usual health and safety management, such as replacing worn flooring, and good lighting.

  • Physical strength and stamina generally declines as we age. This means that the development of issues such as musculoskeletal disorders become more likely, although studies show that the risk is countered by experience. These risks can be managed across age groups by using machinery and lifting aids, providing training, reducing lone working or rotating duties.

  • As we age our ability to see and hear worsens. Measures such as adequate lighting, sight tests, and glasses or hearing aids can address the risk.

  • There is evidence to suggest that the effect of working shifts for many years can impact on health. Measures to address this — such as giving people more control over the shifts they work and workplace health checks — will benefit workers of all ages.

  • Covid-19 disproportionately affects older individuals and employers need to protect workers from the transmission of Covid-19. Mitigating actions should include improved ventilation and FFP3-grade face masks. Individual risk assessment should be caried out for workers at heightened risk.

  • Workplaces need to be aware of the impact of perimenopause and the menopause on people who menstruate. The symptoms can have a big impact and there are a number of ways in which workplaces can support workers such as by reviewing working temperatures, welfare facilities, PPE and uniforms.

What else can organisations do to support an age-diverse workforce?

Although health and safety is one element of attracting and retaining staff, there are other elements of work that can make a difference. These can be developed with other teams, such as HR and cover the following.

  1. Know your workforce — Knowing the employee profile — both now and projected forward — will be key to adopting an effective strategy.

  2. Understand perceptions — Use insights from data such as employee satisfaction surveys to understand the experience of employees and their needs. Everyone will have to plan what happens in later life. Do individuals feel like age is a concern? Are they unsure about the affordability of retirement?

  3. Does the organisation have a strategy — Although the benefits of older employees are well-known, many organisations do not have a strategy for valuing and supporting workers as they get older.

  4. Make a decision to support workers — this can include a commitment to changing culture and identifying policies that would support older workers.

The Centre for Ageing Better provides a toolkit that outlines some simple ways to become an age-friendly employer. Some of the actions outlined, are:

  • offering flexible working

  • hiring age-positively

  • ensuring everyone has the health support they need

  • encouraging career development at all ages.

Clearly, many of these steps are not just positive for those over 50, they are things that everyone in the workforce would benefit from.

Summary

Everyone ages, and as the UK’s population becomes proportionally older, so too will the workforce. From a health and safety perspective, age should not be a barrier to work — indeed there are other factors that will play a more important role in the health of an individual and experience and knowledge counter most declines in physical or sensory capacity. Where adjustments are needed, these are usually of benefit to all workers.

Other actions relating to supporting an aging workforce (such as more flexible working and skill development) are usually managed by HR teams, but are also key, and will similarly benefit all employees — not just those over 50.