Whether it’s more pressing concerns, prejudice or a lack of foresight, too few firms are taking the ageing of the workforce seriously. Fortunately, it’s an area where OSH professionals can pick up the baton.
Few things better illustrate the vital role older workers can play than the 65,000 letters sent to retired doctors and nurses in England and Wales asking them to return to work to help the NHS tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council contacted 50,000 nurses whose registration had lapsed in the past three years, while the General Medical Council called on 15,500 doctors who had left the profession since 2017. At the time of writing, more than 20,000 had answered the call.
IOSH vice-president Dr David Gold can relate to this. ‘As a UN official, I had to retire at the age of 60. It felt quite young and I immediately set up a consultancy and went to work.
‘I’ve been doing it for 12 years now. I’m speaking to you with two monitors in front of me, as well as a MacBook Pro and an iPad. It’s not about age, it’s a question of an individual’s capacity,’ he says.
The global picture
By 2030, 1.4 billion people will be aged over 60, representing 16.4% of the global population. By 2050, it will have increased to 2.1 billion or 21.3%. The developed nations of Europe, Japan and North America will be among those with the oldest populations, while China and Latin America will also have experienced considerable population ageing. Even now, in Japan, one in four construction workers is over 60, and the industry is expected to face a shortage of several hundred thousand people in just five years’ time.
Compared with its EU neighbours, the UK ranks somewhere in the middle in its proportion of older people, with more than 24% expected to be aged 65 or older by 2042, up from 18% in 2016.
And while these demographic changes are hardly well-kept secrets, few organisations are taking appropriate steps to prepare for a significantly older workforce – and also one that has a wide spread of ages within it (see panel).
The Centre for Ageing Better (CAB) claims that only one in five UK employers is discussing an ageing workforce strategically, while nearly a quarter (24%) openly admit they are unprepared for a growing number of older workers.
Why is this? Prejudice, says the CAB. ‘The UK’s attitudes to ageing are overwhelmingly negative, with older workers seen as having lower levels of performance, less ability to learn, and being more costly than younger workers.’
It’s a view backed by MPs. In 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee at the House of Commons suggested that ‘it is unacceptable that the nation is wasting the talents of more than one million people aged over 50 who are out of work but would be willing to work if the right opportunity arose. People in later life […] should not face the current barriers of discrimination, bias and outdated employment practices.’
This is nothing new, of course. As long ago as 1980, the International Labour Office, the UN agency responsible for labour-related issues including OSH, adopted Recommendation 162 – the Older Workers Recommendation. It states: ‘Each member should […] promote equality of opportunity and treatment for workers, whatever their age, and… take measures for the prevention of discrimination in employment and occupation with regard to older workers.’
Global workforce: Embracing all ages
In 2019, Deloitte quizzed more than 13,000 millennials (born Jan 1983 to Dec 1994) across 42 countries. They also questioned more than 3000 Gen Z respondents (Jan 1995 to Dec 2002), giving an insight into under-40s in the global workforce.
Its conclusion was that this group is ‘disillusioned with traditional institutions, sceptical of business’s motives and pessimistic about economic and social progress’. It referred to them as ‘generation disrupted’.
While this may be true, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah James, assistant health and safety consultant at Carney Consultancy and Jamie Laing, group safety business partner at Sainsbury’s, are keen to see companies adapt to embrace wider age ranges. Both are part of the IOSH Future Leaders Community Steering Group.
With an eye on technological change, Sarah feels that older workers may potentially be resistant to change and struggle to keep up with the latest apps and social media trends. Crucially, however, she says this presents opportunities for the generations to learn from each other.
‘Employers should be encouraging future older workers to engage with new professionals to ensure coaching and mentoring is taking place so the younger workers have the skills, knowledge and experience to carry out their roles.’
Sarah also welcomes the recent focus on mental health and wellbeing. ‘Employers need to encourage a healthy workplace. Adaptations such as the option to work from home, reduced hours or flexible working are attractive to young and old alike.
‘Employers should also ensure that stress levels are under control and encourage communication. Everyone needs to feel confident that if they are suffering long-term health issues it can be addressed and appropriate measures put in place.’
IOSH firmly believes that older workers are a valuable resource and make a positive contribution to organisations. Age diversity at work brings benefits to individuals, workplaces and wider society, such as a broader range of skills and experience; opportunities for skill-transfer and mentoring; reduced staff turnover; and improved morale.
Indeed, the institution has called on employers to deliver proactive age management, along with better-designed work and workplace adjustment; training, retraining and redeployment; flexible working; and phased retirement. Industry professionals can also support the management of an older workforce through diversity-sensitive risk assessment and by dispelling unhelpful stereotypes (see Resources, below).
IOSH vice-president Kayode Fowode feels that early intervention, communication and engagement of employees are key to ensuring workers will still be physically and mentally fit in 20 years’ time.
‘Employers need to intervene on issues that may affect employees’ wellbeing. It is also important that employers engage with and develop communication channels that create the opportunity for older workers to share their view on how to remain physically and mentally fit.
'IOSH firmly believes that older workers are a valuable resource and make a positive contribution'
‘We want to see the creation of policies and programmes that support work/life balance and flexible working. This will help support workers’ productivity and minimise their vulnerabilities.
‘Also, employers should set a structured retirement scheme, ensure job requirements do not exceed individual capabilities, encourage flexible and remote working where applicable, and implement regular health surveillance,’ he says.
David agrees: ‘Organisations need to think about the transition toward retirement and negotiating with older employees. One of the things the UN talks about is the importance of social dialogue. That’s the conversation between the employer, workers and workers’ organisations, to make sure things aren’t simply top down.’
Fit and healthy workplaces: Not young forever
Jamie Laing at Sainsbury’s feels that employers with a strong wellbeing strategy will see the benefit when their workers age and are still fit and healthy team members, although he can see particular challenges for heavy industries such as construction and manufacturing. ‘These are still predominantly physical industries and have little flexibility in job design, although this is improving with new technologies.
‘Another consideration is shift working,’ he says. ‘Studies have shown this to affect wellbeing over time, and this is even more prevalent in older workers.’
He argues that OSH professionals should engage boards now to influence future job and workplace design. ‘At present, most employers deal with reasonable adjustments as an exception, often involving a multidisciplinary resource-intensive process. If we don’t make workplaces flexible by design now, we risk being consumed by reasonable adjustments as the workforce ages.
‘Also, the variance of preferred learning styles between generations is increasingly polarised and this presents challenges to employers when it comes to training and sharing of information. Balanced learning solutions, where there is a mixture of content types and delivery methods, can help.’
It pays to start now. As EU-OSHA notes: ‘People’s health in later life is affected by their health behaviour earlier in life. The workplace has a key role to play in promoting a healthy lifestyle and supporting activities that prevent physical decline, and thus help to maintain work ability.’
A role for OSH professionals
Not everything about ageing is positive, of course. A report from the UK Health and Safety Executive notes that the proportion of fatal injuries to workers over the age of 60 is the highest for more than a decade. Nearly 40% of fatal injuries in 2018-19 were to workers aged 60 and over, despite them making up just 10% of the national workforce, which highlights the urgent need for greater workplace precautions to protect older workers.
IOSH, through its support for the campaign from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) on healthy workplaces for all ages, has encouraged greater preventative measures to be taken to promote sustainable work and healthy ageing throughout people’s working lives.
Even so, David counsels that while a chronic condition might have an impact on an individual’s ability to work, ‘at the same time, I could be 20 years old, injure myself and not be fit for work. Organisations need to look at everything on a non-discriminating basis.’
Kayode suggests that workplaces may need to embrace automation and mechanisation as part of the solution. ‘Investing in technology that supports flexible/remote working and collaborating with other disciplines in offering psychosocial support, including health and wellbeing resilience,’ he says.
He would also like to see industry professionals take a leadership role in offering appropriate advice to management on the benefits and challenges older workers might pose and in developing strategies for managing these challenges.
The past 75 years have prepared us to tackle these challenges, and like the doctors and nurses summoned to help tackle the pandemic, we can prove that age is no barrier.
- IOSH older workers policy position: bit.ly/IOSH-older-workers-position
- Age Action Alliance toolkit: ageactionalliance.org/employer-toolkit
- UK government on help and support for older workers: bit.ly/DWP-older-workers
- Safer and healthier work at any age (EU-OSHA): bit.ly/EU-OSHA-any-age
- Eurofound on age-friendly work: bit.ly/EF-age-friendly