Older worker health - a looming crisis?

Blog posts

22 Apr 2016

Stephen Bevan

Stephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development

An important area of focus for policymakers, employers and, indeed, for us at IES, is the looming problem of older worker health. Despite the fact that the over-65s are the fastest growing segment of the workforce, the numbers leaving work before state pension age – often for health reasons – are still significant. For example, on average men leave the labour market earlier now than they did in the 1950s and 1960s. According to the Labour Force Survey, of the 7.2 million people aged 50 to 64 who are employed, 42 per cent are living with a health condition or disability – this ill-health is often concentrated among older workers with lower incomes.

As the workforce ages and retires later the growing burden of chronic-ill-health (often as a result of lifestyle-related conditions) will represent a big challenge for employers. This is why it is very important that we do what we can to support older workers to remain active in the labour market and to extend their working lives up to and beyond state pension age. This is likely to be a difficult task. The government’s own data from its ‘Fuller Working Lives’ initiative shows that, of the 2.9 million people aged between 50 and state pension age who are out of work, only 0.7 million regard themselves as ‘retired’ in the conventional sense, yet 1.7 million think it is unlikely that they will ever work again. Many of these people are sick or disabled.

But what can employers do? This is the subject of a project which IES is conducting for the CIPD, looking at experiences in 5 EU countries and a systematic review of the research evidence which we have conducted for NICE. Earlier this month, a new initiative by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) was launched which highlights a number of excellent examples from across the European Union of ways that employers have introduced preventative or adaptive practices aimed at improving older worker health and supporting them to live longer – and fulfilling – working lives. I was a consultant to this initiative and peer-reviewed some of the case study evidence, which has now resulted in some very practical guidance – called Healthy Workplaces for All Ages. This resource shows how a series of relatively simple measures can focus on the needs and productivity of older workers, even if they have significant physical or cognitive impairment.

The thing that impressed me was that many employers had thought very carefully about how jobs could be redesigned or adapted to build on what the older worker was still capable of rather than focusing on their functional or cognitive limitations. It was also striking how eager our EU partners have been to embrace this Scandinavian ‘workability’ model of work adaptation – a much more personalised and sustainable approach which has been embraced both in Europe and in North America. Although the UK has made good progress in extending the working lives of a growing number of older workers, progress has been more rapid in countries such as the Netherlands and Finland where many employers are taking a very positive approach to helping older workers with chronic health conditions to stay in work. The new resources from EU-OSHA are a welcome addition to both the knowledge-base in this area and to the stock of examples which employers can draw upon as they seek to improve their own practices.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.