​Ageing and the workplace: caring for people of working age

An overview of the impact of ageing populations discussing the common myths and stereotypes associated with older workers, information about their health and safety needs, and recommended employment practices.

Location: UK
Audience: Occupational health doctors
Updated: Tuesday 8 September 2020
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​There are more over-50s in employment in the UK than ever before. In August 2016 over 1.2 million people were working beyond the age of 65.

Low birth rates and increasing life expectancy means there will be fewer younger people available for work and people working until later in life. This also raises questions about pressures on pension adequacy.

Occupational physicians deal with many issues from both employees and employers as a consequence of the UK workforce getting older. For workers to remain productive, there must be a good fit between work demands, their working environment and their bio-psychosocial needs. Health depends on many more factors other than age including lifestyle, job tenure and physical demands.

While health is a determinant of how long people continue to work there are also emotional, personal and financial factors. Work brings many benefits including self-esteem, companionship and a salary. The employment status of an employee’s partner, caring responsibilities, hobbies and interests, relationships at and outside of work and financial security all influence a person’s decision to retire or to continue to work.

 

Attitudes and perceptions

Older adults are often discriminated against in the workplace on the basis of inaccurate stereotypes, the majority of which are not consistent with the cumulated research evidence. For example while it is generally believed that the health and employability of workers declines with age, only a minority of older people who are of working age decline physically and/or mentally.

One challenge is tackling the prevailing myths and prejudices and addressing the negative stereotypical views relating to older workers.

 

The biological effects of ageing

There are many individual differences in functional abilities at any given age and the impact of ageing is minimal among those of working age.

In most jobs declining health has no impact on job performance; many jobs and work environments can be adjusted for emerging disabilities. Diminished cognitive ability is slight for most people in their sixties and the effects may be offset by experience and established skills. The biological effects of ageing can be moderated by increased physical activity, intellectual activity and other lifestyle factors.

Chronological age is not the most important determinant of health and ageing does not inevitably lead to illness – work demands, and psychosocial factors may have a greater influence on the risk of developing work-related ill health than age. Although the risk of long-term conditions may increase with age, the majority of older workers enjoy good health and most people who have long-term conditions or disabilities continue to work.

In summary, relationships between age, health and employability appear to be weak.

 

Occupational health and safety needs

Work capacity or job performance in the ageing worker involves interaction between functional capacity, health and the nature of the work.

Little age-stratified evidence exists, but what there is suggests that in the absence of illness workers aged 65 are at no worse detriment than those aged 50. In general, what benefits younger age groups also benefits older age groups (although the benefits may be greater in the young). Healthy older people with current skills perform as well at work as their younger counterparts.

Individual support for those at risk from lifestyle factors of developing chronic disease has been shown to be beneficial in improving workability and reducing absence.

Attention to workplace and task design and adopting flexible policies are key to support the retention of older workers.

All staff should have access to high quality occupational health support with health promotion programmes. Access to physiotherapy and counselling all promote employment longevity and staff engagement.

Age-associated functional declines (and the accompanying risk of work-related injury) can be prevented (or at least delayed) by regular physical activity.

 

Active age management at work

Employees in late middle age are often caught between generations of family members requiring care, making it difficult to manage these responsibilities alongside work.

Most employers recognise the need to change processes and/or behaviours in order to retain older workers.

Important active ageing approaches can be identified from countries that have comprehensive programmes including education and training, improved working conditions and long-term health and increased flexible work opportunities.

Occupational health professionals can help educate employers about effective approaches to active age management.

 

Recommendations

  • Be aware that more people are staying in work until later years, which has implications for the health and safety responsibilities of employers and their occupational health services.
  • Help employers review relevant policies, practices and activities to provide a safe, healthy, age-sensitive and discrimination-free working environment.
  • Provide training for managers and employees on occupational health and wellbeing issues specific to the older workers.
  • Help managers and workers address prevailing myths and prejudices relating to older workers.
  • Help employers take preventive action through flexible, age-friendly policies, the design and organisation of work and access to specialist-led occupational health services.
  • Contribute to workplace risk assessment and risk management to mitigate the effects of workers being exposed to risks over longer working lives.
  • Provide workers with suitable occupational health programmes.
  • Encourage a culture of openness about health issues at work, including age-related health issues.