Liberal Democrat care minister Norman Lamb has been on a mission to combat loneliness among the elderly as part of a drive to reduce pressure on care services and the National Health Service (NHS).
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- Older workers may be healthier than their younger peers.
- But employers should be mindful of any specific health issues.
- Training and development can help to optimise cognitive abilities.
Lamb believes the offer of companionship from a neighbour could go as far as to give an elderly person a reason to live again. But employment can have the same effect.
Chris Ball, chief executive of the Age and Employment Network, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to remove age barriers to employment, says: “Good work is good for health and puts people in a far better position to retire financially, plus experience is an incredibly important thing to have in pretty much any job.”
So, how can employers support older workers to be as fit and healthy as possible to boost their productivity and reduce avoidable sickness absence?
Understanding that older workers may be no more susceptible to illness than their younger peers is a good place to start.
Chris Jessop, managing director, health services UK and Europe at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “Employers should not assume that just because everybody is ageing that everyone has particular health issues.
“Employers must not fall into the trap of assuming that as soon as employees hit 65 or 70, they should be walking round with a Zimmer frame because there are an awful lot of people now in their 60s and 70s, and even in their 80s, who are very active and healthy and who can probably put a lot of young [employees] to shame.”
Nevertheless, employers do need to understand that certain illnesses are more common with age, such as musculoskeletal complaints, certain cancers and lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity and the knock-on effects of heart disease and diabetes.
“Employers have to recognise that while many employees are ageing elegantly and productively, there are likely to be a larger number of issues that could emerge for an ageing workforce,” says Jessop.
“And if you couple that with the long-term unsustainability of funding from the state’s point of view and the need for employers to protect their productivity and performance, and harness all the benefits of an older workforce, one could argue that they should be developing strategies that more proactively help their workforce manage their health and wellbeing.”
Health screening and simple workplace adjustments, such as providing glasses to address cases of visual impairment are simple, cost-effective forms of support for all employers to consider.
Christopher Brooks, policy adviser – employment and skills at the charity Age Concern, says: “There is some evidence that shows that when employers invest in making those kinds of adjustments for their older workers, there is actually a positive spill-over effect on middle-age workers, mid-30s upwards, which raises productivity across the whole organisation.”
Sports and social clubs can also help to optimise older employees’ health. John Neal, director of the Sport Business Initiative at Ashridge Business School, says: “Typically, the cause of employee absence is normally the same: they are overweight and not doing enough movement, and there are some challenges about motivation. Group classes tend to be more motivating for employees and more cost-effective [for employers] than offering normal gym membership or an on-site gym.
“Employers could save an awful lot of money if, instead of lots of [on-site] gym equipment, they just need a room.”
The more unusual groups with which employers can stimulate and motivate older workers include workplace stand-up comedy clubs and choirs, walking clubs and Argentine tango classes, says Neal. “These [clubs] are combining fitness with learning,” he adds.
But Neal says employers will get the best return on investment by encouraging staff to move and get their backs working better, because, in his experience, about 90% of all workplace back problems are musculoskeletal, which means they react well to movement.
At the very least, employers should educate older employees about how best to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. As part of its service proposition, Ashridge has its own online health club, which helps to tackle older workers’ aversion to the gym. The online platform enables staff to perform their own health assessments and track their activity levels.
Training and development
Training and development can also help to boost older employees’ productivity.
Age Concern’s Brooks says: “One of the biggest barriers to older workers [remaining in employment] is around keeping their mental skills sharp, which is often because there isn’t any appropriate training provision in place. If employers make sure employees have access to training and encourage them to take part in learning new skills, they can help them maintain their cognitive abilities as well.”
But whatever approach employers take, they must be mindful of the sensitivities involved in supporting older workers. Ashridge’s Neal explains: “A lot of people over 50 think they’re bullet-proof and they haven’t really got the message about [the importance of good] health.
“We hear things like ‘every time I think of exercising, I lie down and it goes away’, and that’s many employees’ normal approach. So employers have to get them thinking that healthy living is something that will do them good.”
This can be as simple as running workplace campaigns to help focus older employees’ minds on where they want to be in five years’ time, and whether they want a long and healthy retirement and to spend time with their grandchildren, rather than focusing on their role within the organisation.
Viewpoint: Bela Gor: Employers need to build flexibility into job descriptions
The UK population is ageing and so is its workforce. By 2020, one-third of workers will be over 50, especially as it is now unlawful to force employees to retire unless there are objectively justifiable reasons for doing so, following the removal of the default retirement age.
Employers might think older employees are more likely to have a disability, and so present greater challenges, but this is not the case.
In England and Wales, the largest proportion of disabled people (25%) are in the 50 to 64 age group. Among 65 to 74-year-olds, only 20% say they have a disability. This is probably because they do not think of themselves as disabled, but it is still true that most people will acquire a disability between the ages of 35 and 49, when the figure jumps from 5% to 15%, and between 50 and 64.
Older employees want the same from an employer as younger staff do: flexi-time, remote working, annualised hours and job sharing. They also like control and choice in how they do their work.
It is true that visual acuity declines with age, but the deterioration starts in the mid-40s. So every employee will appreciate clear fonts and good contrast in written material and a well-lit environment.
Cognitive capacity peaks even earlier, in the mid- to late 20s, but with age comes increased verbal fluency, general knowledge and vocabulary, not to mention specialist skills and business knowledge.
There is no reason to believe that older employees cannot be trained in new skills, and excluding them because of their age may be unlawful. Employers should just ensure that venues and materials are accessible for everyone.
Overall, employers that build flexibility into job descriptions, have ergonomically well-designed workspaces and an open and inclusive culture can only benefit from having older workers.
Bela Gor is legal director for the Business Disability Forum
Guernsey Post provides fully-funded healthcare benefits for older workforce
Guernsey Post actively recruits older employees because of the stability they offer the mail organisation.
Mary Hurrell, head of HR, says: “We like to look for a mature attitude. Even when we recruit people, we don’t necessarily want to be bringing in lots of young [employees] because, generally speaking, they will come in and do three or four years’ service, maximum, and then they’ll be looking to move off elsewhere.
“We actually pitch our recruitment to attract [employees] who are perhaps in their 40s or older, and who are much more likely to stick with us. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience and the ability to deal with issues that, when you’re younger, you just haven’t got enough experience to cope with.”
Consequently, 42.5% of Guernsey Post’s 241 employees are over the age of 50, and 10% are over 60. The oldest employee is 72 and has an office role, but most staff deliver post.
The organisation formalised its strategy for supporting older workers five years ago. “We had the strategy previously, but we didn’t think about it; it was automatic,” says Hurrell. “For the last five years, we’ve been much more aware, making sure we’re not excluding any older workers from applying to work here, or from staying with us.”
Guernsey Post, which is owned by the State of Guerney, operates a flexible approach to employment, whereby employees perform their post rounds on bikes until they find this too much of a challenge. They are then offered a van instead of their bike, after which they are offered office-based work and the opportunity to work part-time.
Healthcare support, which is fully funded by Guernsey Post, includes a private medical insurance scheme run by Axa PPP Healthcare and an occupational health service, which the organisation outsources to a local medical practice. A physiotherapist from the practice also visits the workplace on Monday mornings.
All employees are also offered on-site blood pressure checks and access to a smoking cessation programme, as well as an on-site flu jab in winter.
The organisation also funds retirement training for employees and their partners or spouses approaching retirement, which is provided by the Guernsey Training Agency.
GlaxoSmithKline has formula to protect older employees’ health
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) addresses the healthcare needs of its older employees under its Partnership for Prevention programme, an internally-designed healthcare scheme that is being rolled out to its global business sites.
Doctor Timothy Wighton, director of global disease prevention and health promotion at GSK, says: “It is the brainchild of several people within GSK who came together and said: ‘Are we doing enough for our employees, no matter what level they are, no matter what age they are and no matter where they work?
”Are we doing enough to give them services to prevent disease and live healthier lives, and are we giving them the opportunity to get early detection of disease?’
“What we found is that we’re not, so we went to the World Health Organisation and looked at 40 preventative services, most of which centre around vaccination and clean drinking water, with others around cancer screening.”
GSK now screens staff for four types of cancer: skin, breast, cervical and colon, as well as for cardiac disease and diabetes.
The organisation is also working with insurers and healthcare providers around the globe to train them in management of preventative disease and chronic disease for all staff.
Wighton says workplace adjustments for older workers are made as and when required across the business. “We look at individual cases, so if we need to adjust a workplace or an environment or parking, or whatever it may be, we’ve done so,” he says.
But he adds: “I think we’re new at this. I think many employers are new at it. Most employees used to work in an [organisation] and retired at a certain age, usually in their 50s, but today it’s much different.”
Wighton says GSK’s healthcare programme is part of its efforts to retain the experience of its older staff and the energy they can bring to the business.
“We are a scientific and medical organisation and it takes years to develop our vaccines and medicines,” he says. “Those employees that have been involved in [these projects] from a very early age stick with a project for 10 to 15 years, so we’re absolutely going to have an ageing workforce and we’re going to have to make these adaptions, starting with preventative services and disease management. Those are the things that are going to make a difference right now and going forward.”
GSK hopes to finish implementing the Partnership for Prevention programme by 2017.