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Nick Warburton is former editor of SHP Magazine. He is currently working as a freelance journalist and as an account manager at Technical Publicity.
July 24, 2015

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Future workforce predictions

DG4TAE Elderly woman holding a hammer and chisel. Construction background

The UK has little grasp of what the workforce will look like in 10 years let alone 25 years. Author of a new Foresight report, Professor Peter Buckle explains why more research is urgently needed. Interview by Nick Warburton

One of the most salient points to have struck Professor Peter Buckle from his work in ergonomics and human factors at the Royal College of Art is that companies tend not to invest in older workers.

The reasoning is that more senior members of the workforce will leave the company in the not-too-distant future, therefore what’s the incentive in investing in their professional development?

But it’s a flawed logic because arguably younger workers are less likely to reward the investment made in them with loyalty to the company. When a better opportunity arises, they are off to pastures new.

Businesses, therefore, it might be argued, are ‘missing a trick’ by not respecting the knowledge and experience that older workers bring and finding ways to enable these individuals to extend their working lives.

As Professor Buckle points out, businesses need to better understand what motivates people to stay on and fully grasping this is part of good age management.

“That for me is the key that we haven’t turned in this country,” he insists. “How to manage an ageing workforce.”

With falling birth rates, it’s an unavoidable fact that an increasing proportion of the UK’s future workforce will consist of older workers. Coupled with this is the realisation that employees will now be required to work beyond the age of 65, the traditional pension age.

“At the moment, no one quite knows what the upper ceiling will eventually be – 67, 68, possibly longer,” he continues. “It’s an interesting challenge for the workers and those that employ them.”

How the UK effectively manages an ageing workforce presents a myriad of challenges for policy makers and the research professor has started the process by putting the issue in front of HSE’s new workplace health expert committee.

One of its nine expert members, Professor Buckle joined the distinguished panel for its first meeting on 24 June. The committee’s brief is to offer expert opinions on emerging issues and trends, new evidence relating to existing issues and, on the quality and relevance of the evidence base on workplace health issues.

“The idea is to prioritise areas of concern and start to seek appropriate evidence around a whole host of workplace health issues,” he explains.

“With an ageing workforce, I think it’s a massive problem in terms of accidents and errors through to direct health issues. It seems to me that we are sleepwalking our way into something without having any evidence to know how to advise employers even.”

Professor Buckle has good reason to be concerned. Last December the government commissioned him to carry out an evidence review as part of its Foresight Initiative, and the final report, Workplace Infrastructure, was published in June. The key findings are outlined in the box (see box).


His brief was to consider changes to workplace infrastructure and environment that will enable a growing number of workers to successfully remain at work for longer, and to consider how this will evolve in 2025 and 2040.

Having also looked at the barriers that ageing workers face across a diverse range of workplaces, business sectors and organisational structures, what struck him most was how poorly prepared the UK is to face up to the issues that the research raised.

“One of the first things that I found was that we have virtually no grasp of what the workforce is going to look like in 10 years, let alone 25 years,” he warns.

“A few professional groups have attempted to do some of that planning but predicting the workforce of the future has hardly been done.”

That’s why the research findings are so important. Unfortunately, many observers like to make predictions based on very little ‘hard’ fact, he argues. What the evidence review does is provide an ‘informed’ steer for businesses so that they can start to think about design solutions. It also offers important insights for government so that it can shape future policy.

Professor Buckle explains that one of the most important findings from his research is that very little work has been done on risk assessments for people over the age of 65 in the workplace. This, however, shouldn’t surprise us, he adds.

“HSE has done a great job of trying to understand risk to workers but it’s always been done on the working population, but now we hardly know anything about people over 65 in work because we’ve not had them before,” he says.

“At one end, you’ve got situations whereby you would say, ‘What would a 68-year-old female nurse be able to do in a heavy physical work situation?’ We don’t know. There’s a gulf there that needs to be filled and when you look at the literature across the whole range of how people would work after 65, we have virtually no knowledge.”

This is where Professor Buckle believes more research is needed and he’s already earmarked it as a priority area for HSE’s new health committee.

One characteristic of an ageing population, he continues, is that older workers are more likely to be less healthy, in some ways, than their younger contemporaries. This begs the question: how do you design a workplace safely for individuals who might already have some long-term health conditions?

“It’s quite likely that by the time that they reach their mid-60s many people will be on medication for a number of chronic health problems and therefore we need to consider how that might affect their performance in the workplace,” he points out.

“Also, if we find that the impact of forcing people to work past 65 is that a lot of them get ill and sick, then we pick up that cost in other ways. You may cut back on pensions but your social care and health costs go through the roof. We have to be smarter than that.”

As an ergonomist and human factors expert, Professor Buckle argues that if work is appropriate and well designed, it can be shown to be beneficial to people’s health and insists that it must be a participatory, co-design approach where older workers have a say in deciding the solutions.

One of the key questions is – how do businesses ensure work and workplaces are attractive and appropriate to people’s health needs to keep them fit and healthy? The main challenge, he says, will be for those that undertake a high degree of physical work.

“We have done quite poorly in terms of reducing physical loading in some sectors,” he argues.

Having looked at construction and health care in the evidence review, both sectors where physical loads can still be very high, Professor Buckle says there were already existing problems, which have been made worse by changing work organisational patterns. What’s more, both employers and employees have bought into this.

“[Working patterns are frequently] moving to 12-hours shifts but we have very little good information about what happens to people exposed to 12 hours of physical work,” he says.

“Twelve-hour shifts may also be counterproductive in the long run, especially for older workers. We don’t really know what the effects of these longer shifts on the health and well-being of older workers might be, but we urgently need to assess the risks, if we are to avoid adding significant costs in the future.”

Finland is one the trailblazers when it comes to preparing for an ageing workforce and has developed a work ability index, which SHP plans to report on later in the year.

“On the back of that, they have developed lots of management programmes on how to manage older workers,” he says.

“This is something that I am starting to propose that we should do much more of. I couldn’t find many examples of organisations that routinely talked about how to manage older workers. Developing a skills set for young managers that enables them to understand much older workers is something we haven’t really focused on.”

Professor Buckle says that, on the back of his report, he plans to start contacting leading businesses in the UK to see what they are doing and to educate them on what steps they can take to plan for the future. If he can get these leading lights to take action, he is convinced others will follow.

“There is a lot of knowledge and experience which walks out the door because people don’t really know how to encourage older workers to stay in the workplace or perhaps don’t think they should be there,” he concludes.

“And we need a lot more knowledge among our managers as to how to deal with and optimise the performance of our ageing workforce. Without that I don’t see the other workplace changes required being implemented.”

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