In the United Kingdom, almost one-third of people in employment are over 50. This means that before long, these workers will retire and so will their acquired experiences and skills.
Unfortunately, because of a long-term change in UK demographics, we are likely facing a lack of younger people able to fill the gap. What’s more, since Brexit, it’s unlikely that we will be able to plug the gaps with migrant workers as easily as before. While this is a generalised problem in the UK, it does affect more industries than others.
Another age-related factor affecting our workforce in the UK is the rise in pension age. This means that people are having to delay retirement more than ever before. And with that, come age-related problems at work.
We cannot use health and safety as an excuse for not employing older people and there is no requirement for an additional risk assessment. Lots of the beliefs around older people in the workforce are actually incorrect. A lot of employers have views based on incorrect stereotypes and many older people feel fit and well. There is also no evidence to suggest that older workers have more accidents at work than younger people, although when accidents do occur with older people, they are more likely to be serious.
Problems with ageing – the physical effects
While having older people in the workforce isn’t necessarily a problem, when people age, there are things that can affect their work. Of course, people all age at different rates but let’s take a look at some things that can affect ageing workers.
- Loss of strength – by retirement age, the average person only has three-quarters of their original strength
- Aerobic capacity – a person’s aerobic capacity decreases as they age. At 60, the average aerobic capacity is between 60 and 70% of a 20-year-old’s. This means that a worker will get out of breath more easily.
- Problems managing shift work – night shifts come with their own special stresses. Older people are less likely to be able to adapt to changing shift patterns.
- Susceptibility to heatstroke. Older people are less able to regulate their body temperature.
- Long-term health conditions – chronic health conditions are more prevalent among the older generations. Examples include high blood pressure, obesity and arthritis.
- Delayed reaction times – as we age, we take longer to react to things and longer to learn or remember things.
- Impaired vision – with advancing age, many people’s eyesight begins to falter, which can cause problems if not adequately monitored.
- Impaired hearing – age-related hearing loss is common. By the time we reach 50, the average person has lost 50 dB, which goes to 35 dB by 70 years of age.
- Menopause – often overlooked, menopause for many women is a time of difficulties and problems. With around 3.5 million women over the age of 50 employed in the UK, there are many having to cope with menopause symptoms at work. The symptoms vary between individuals but common issues are tiredness, poor concentration, depression, reduced confidence and sleepiness. As you can imagine, this will cause huge difficulties for many working women.
Mitigating age-related problems in work settings
While not all age-related health problems can be mitigated, some can. However, for those people who are in the workplace with an age-related health condition, there will be limitations. By being more flexible, employers can take advantage of older employees’ experience, wisdom and work ethic.
Employers can help their ageing workers by being flexible with working requirements. Offering part-time work can help people manage any age-related problems. Employers can also reduce the risks of an older worker getting injured by modifying their responsibilities. Of course, everyone is different so it is essential to appreciate older workers as individual employees with differing needs.
Pairing older and younger workers together is a good strategy. Not only will the older worker benefit by having a younger person around to assist with strenuous tasks if necessary, but the younger employee will be able to learn from the older person’s skills and experiences.
For those who work in IT, employers can set computer programs to show a larger font as a default. It would also be a consideration to increase illumination in work areas.
The benefits of an ageing workforce
Having an age-diverse workforce is often a strength. Every generation has something different to give to a company. It can also lead to better performance. A study showed that the over-50s are the most engaged across all generations.
With older workers in employment, companies can help combat ageism. With younger people mixing with older people, the newer generations will see that the over 50s are not technophobes and incapable of understanding the latest technology.
What the law says
Under health and safety law, employers have to ensure the health and safety of all employees – including older workers. They must also provide appropriate training and instruction so that employees can work safely.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR) means that employers must identify groups of workers at an increased risk – this could include older workers.
Finally, discriminating against workers because of their age is illegal.
While employers should never discriminate against a worker due to their age, they do need to bear in mind the potential for differing needs. Employers should:
- Review their risk assessments only when there are significant changes – and age is not a significant change
- Never presume that a worker’s age determines which jobs they can do
- Allow older workers to have more time to take in health and safety training and information. Self-paced training is ideal
- Consider opening up opportunities for older workers to move to a different type of work should they wish
- Avoid any assumption and involve the older workers in decisions about their health and safety