Will you still need me when I’m 64?
“When we think about the health and safety of ageing workers, there is still a massive ‘ism’ that we don’t really tackle in the workplace”, said Jennifer Webster, Occupational Psychologist, at HSE, speaking in the Keynote Theatre at this year’s Safety & Health Expo about protecting the ageing workforce.
If we want to try and improve the environment in which people work, we need to be mindful that age is just a number. HSE want to work with businesses to find out what they’re doing for their ageing workforce, and want to collaborate with them on a research project on the issue.
The HSE is developing the research programme because as Jennifer explained: “It is very important now there has been a change in the state pension age that we have an understanding of how people will perform in the workplace when they get beyond 65. Most of the current available data goes to about 64 so there is very poor evidence about what works and what doesn’t.
“There’s lots of talk about equality and diversity, but when we think about age, there’s still quite a lot of people that are put out to grass before they’re ready to go”, she said. While there is stereotyping around what older workers can do, a lot more people are working past 60. But she warned that businesses won’t be able to manage the health and safety of the workforce, if half of them feel that they don’t have a contribution to make. And there is an awful lot of people moving out of the workplace before they need to.
According to statistics from Public Health England, 1 in 3 of the working population in England report having at least one long-term health condition, and 1 in 7 report to having more than one. The figures also suggest that over half of those with long term health conditions feel their health is a barrier to the type of work they can do – this increases to over 80% when a person has three or more conditions.
A new phenomenon that is coming out of the research literature is ‘leaveism’ – where people are actually taking leave to hide when they go off sick. Jennifer added: “Often, if you are worried about your job, and you’re thinking you’re feeling vulnerable because you’re thinking well the labour market isn’t very supportive of someone in their 50’s, you’re not going to tell your line manager that you have a health condition. So you have people working in a variety of situations where you don’t know that potentially they might have a heart attack, they might have diabetes, they might need certain adjustments that allow them to work”.
The Fuller Worker Lives project has involved Jennifer looking at around 200 papers, and finding that risks fall into two streams – environment factors that get in the way of people performing well (painful positions in the workplace, shift work, physical workloads, etc) and risks like stress, which can have a massive effect on a person’s physical being. And Jennifer explained: “Although people are encouraged to work, and to work longer, there is a strong body of evidence that says if you are an older worker and that you do not feel valued you are more likely to experience a depressive event.”
Age associated deficiencies need to be taken into account too, she added, but how do we know what we need to do. While the evidence from the papers suggest approaches like flexible working, employers may need to think about how to encourage older workers to positively use their experience to benefit the business.
But, she added, we don’t know exactly what actually works and what is sustainable. Offering businesses the opportunity to get involved, Jennifer suggested that maybe we need to be ‘creative’, to make sure that age-related changes are taken into consideration.
To get a good picture of what is going on in this area, the HSE wants to collaborate with organisations to:
- find out what they’re doing for their ageing workforce
- share experiences
- gather case studies to showcase what practices are already in place
- involve them in the research project.
It’s going to take some years, said Jennifer, but the topic is not going to go away; get on the wagon or get left behind, she warned.
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