hse special feature
Changing worlds of work and occupational health: Insights on working into older age
In previous articles for SHP, Helen Beers from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s Foresight Centre has highlighted how the world of work is changing and, in order to anticipate any potential health and safety impacts of this, it is important to look ahead.
Helen has also emphasised the need to continue developing insight, knowledge and understanding about potential health and safety consequences of an ageing workforce, along with the interactions between changes in the workplace and an increase in the average age of the workforce.
In order to gain greater insight into the reality of working into older age within a changing world of work, and any health implications of this, Helen has collaborated with Nina Day (a HSE specialist in workplace transport) and Sheena Johnson (an Occupational Psychologist at the University of Manchester, Alliance Manchester Business School), to gather evidence from the GB logistics and transport sector. This is a sector where the average age of the workforce is increasing, and where musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are already a significant problem. There is potential for the prevalence of MSDs to rise as the average age of the workforce continues to increase; with older workers already being more likely to have multiple health conditions.
In this short article Helen sets out some of the key findings from her collaborative research on ageing and health in the GB logistics and transport sector. The full findings are published as a HSE research report. However, before sharing the findings with you, she begins by setting these in context by briefly looking at some occupational health statistics, as well as HSE’s health priorities, and working into older age.
Occupational health statistics and HSE’s health priorities
Statistics produced by HSE indicate that in 2016-17 1.3 million workers suffered from work-related ill-health (both new and long-standing). Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) were estimated to account for thirty-nine percent of this total, with stress, depression or anxiety estimated to account for forty percent. These estimates are based on self-reports from the Labour Force Survey. Whilst these figures do carry some uncertainties, they nevertheless provide evidence that MSDs and stress are common health issues in the GB workforce.
Looking at these statistics, it will come as no surprise that work-related MSDs and work-related stress are two of HSE’s health priorities; with occupational lung disease being the third. HSE’s health priority plans set out a number of outcomes, including wanting to see significant improvements in the prevention of MSDs and occupational lung disease, and a significant increase in the number of employers taking a proactive stance to managing work-related stress.
Delivery of these health priorities is supported by HSE’s science and evidence approach (which also underpins our regulation, policy, inspection, enforcement and commercial activity; and helps to keep GB working well). The HSE science and evidence strategy for 2017-18 reports the establishment of a number of science hubs, including ones on health at work and the impact of demographic change. By establishing a demographics science hub (which Helen leads), HSE is demonstrating the importance of understanding the possible implications of demographic change (including working in to older age) for the health and safety of the future workforce.
Working into older age
We know that the average age of the working population in the UK is increasing, and that people are now more likely to continue to work into older age. According to the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of those aged 65 and over who work has almost doubled since 2006 (from 609,000 to 1.19 million). Whilst increasing the number of years spent at work (referred to as extending working lives) is something that is evident across many sectors, there are gaps in knowledge and understanding about the potential health and safety impacts. Hence, HSE’s research on ageing and health in the transport sector aimed to start filling some of these gaps, and to pave the way for further research, including exploring the potential of interventions to improve health.
Insights about changes in a working world
Changes in the world of work within the logistics and transport sector were identified from interviews with men aged over fifty who drive heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) as a profession, and also from those who manage or supervise them.
Interview participants described their world of work as one involving long, unsociable hours, often with extensive periods of sedentary work and the potential for high mental and physical demands.
A key change in their working world that was discussed, related to improvements to vehicles, equipment, and greater use of technology. This included more comfortable cabs in vehicles, and more automatic systems such as power steering, automatic gears and braking. Interview participants believed that whilst these automatic systems can make driving physically easier, a driver can feel that they have less control over how they drive. There were reports of technology in the cab having the potential to distract the driver, and to contribute to an increase in the mental demands of the job (for example due to multiple lights and visual displays). There was also the perception that the use of tracking technology and cameras in vehicles might result in a driver feeling under constant surveillance and increased time pressure.
Interview participants had also observed an increase in the number of vehicles on the roads, and described how delays due to traffic, road works and diversions can be a potential stressor for drivers. Any pressure from delays can be exacerbated if drivers are under time constraints, for example to fulfil the increasing demand for ‘click and collect’ services.
Insights about the health implications of working into older age
With respect to the mental demands of the job, there were reports of drivers having a calmer attitude to work, and using their experience to cope better with pressure than they did when younger; although aspects of the job could still be perceived as stressful for some drivers. In addition to stress, there were also reports of drivers having MSDs. Whilst interview participants spoke about MSDs resulting from the normal ageing process, and mentioned MSDs not caused by work, drivers also provided examples of aspects of their work having a negative impact on them. For example they discussed damage to elbows and shoulders from manual handling of pallets and cages, and from pulling the curtains on the sides of HGVs. It was anticipated that, if drivers continued to work into older age, MSDs may increase.
Despite the fact that they may have injuries from manual tasks, drivers believed that having an appropriate amount of physical work in their job was beneficial in helping them with fitness and strength, and in keeping their weight down, as they continued to work into older age.
Whilst drivers considered that the physical side of work was harder as they aged, there was also a widely held view that their physical health did not negatively impact on their work. There were reports of how employers had often adapted work to accommodate any health needs, for example by changing tasks or shift patterns.
Although interview participants spoke about MSDs and stress, it was the long and irregular working hours, (and associated difficulty in getting regular, healthy meals), that were reported to be one of the biggest problems with the job. This was believed to contribute not just to tiredness and fatigue (perceived to be big issues for drivers), but also to gaining weight and potentially developing health issues such as diabetes. Drivers anticipated that if they continued to work into older age, their weight may continue to increase, particularly if their job was very sedentary.
Fatigue and tiredness due to long working hours (exacerbated by volumes of traffic, delays on the roads, and lengthy waits at delivery sites) were recurring issues, which older drivers might cope with by taking things more slowly; due to their awareness of the risks associated with driving whilst tired.
Lessons about how to support health over an extended working life
There was a perception among interview participants that any effect work might have on future health will be specific to each individual. However, participants highlighted the importance of appropriate management of working hours and physical tasks in enabling working in to older age. Sadly, examples were also provided where drivers had been refused fewer working hours, resulting in exacerbated tiredness and the potential for sleepiness whilst driving.
The findings from this work indicate that any interventions to support older workers may need to consider how the wider social and cultural aspects of work could be adapted (i.e. in order to support healthy ageing at work it is not sufficient to focus purely on interventions that address individual factors, but a wider more holistic approach is likely to be required).
Interview participants believed that drivers’ health could be improved with better access to healthy hot food and by having understanding managers, who will manage workloads, relieve time pressures and offer flexible working or reduced working hours if needed to help alleviate tiredness. Drivers suggested that managers might also ensure that equipment is in good working order and offer them less demanding work for a time when their health might require this. These are things that would be beneficial regardless of the age of the worker.
Working long and unsociable hours, with exposure to high mental and physical demands, is likely to have a negative impact on the health of professional drivers, particularly as they work into older age. Whilst technological advances can support health at work they may also have a detrimental effect. The findings from this study indicate that whilst some employers might be preventing and controlling exposure to MSDs at work, as well as proactively managing work-related stress, participants perceived that there is more that can be done across the sector. Haulage companies, their customers and the wider UK logistics and transport working environment all have an important role to play in ensuring that drivers are not exposed to unnecessary health and safety risks at work.
Whilst the companies and participants taking part in this study were self-selecting, the resulting findings covered both existing and past work experiences and thus provided a rich account about extending working lives and changes in health. In addition, the findings resonate with those from studies undertaken outside the UK (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25053606), and may therefore be applicable to other settings and contexts where similar working conditions exist.
How you can contribute and help to make a difference
A second phase of research looking at age and health in the logistics and transport sector will commence during 2018. This phase will be led by Sheena Johnson at the Alliance Manchester Business School and it is funded by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.
If you employ drivers, or are a self-employed driver, and would be interested in finding out more about the second phase of the transport research, then Sheena would be pleased to hear from you ([email protected] +44 (0) 161 306 3445)
In addition to the work in the logistics and transport sector, Helen is also planning further work to fill in gaps in HSE’s knowledge and understanding about the risks of demographic change.
Authors: Helen Beers, Sheena Johnson and Nina Day
The research on ageing and health in the GB logistics and transport sector, described in this article, was funded by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Alliance Manchester Business School, Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing, and the Centre for Ageing Better. Any opinions and/or conclusions expressed, are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect HSE policy.
©Crown Copyright 2018, Health and Safety Executive
Helen Beers, PhD, is Technical Team Lead for HSE’s Foresight Centre and leads HSE’s priority science on demographics. She has a social science and health psychology research background. Helen’s main area of research interest is demographic change, with a particular focus on the potential health and safety implications of the changing world of work and the ageing workforce.
Sheena J. Johnson, PhD, is an occupational and chartered psychologist and is head of the organisational psychology group at the University of Manchester, UK. She lectures in the Alliance Manchester Business School, where she teaches work psychology and organizational behaviour topics. She is an active researcher into the topics of health and wellbeing, and the ageing workforce and has authored numerous journal articles, books and book chapters.
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