Across Europe, there is a change in the demographics of our workforce.
As life expectancy increases and birth rates drop, the average age of our workforce is on the rise. By 2025, there will be twice as many workers between 50 and 64 than those under 25. By 2050, this figure will increase to 33 % of workers being over the age of 60.
In this article, we explore what being part of an ageing workforce means for the worker and their employers. We look at what can and should be done to support longevity in the workplace. We also review the business case for investing in keeping the workforce healthy.
Ageing at work – what it means for workers and employers
A recent survey by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) showed 6 in 10 workers were concerned about being too tired to continue normal hours during their later years. Two-thirds also feared developing a serious illness that could affect their ability to work.
First, it is important to recognise that age alone does not determine one’s health. Nor does it bring illness. Health is in fact influenced by many factors. Most notably, this includes lifestyle, exercise and diet. However, we do know that the risk of many diseases does increase with age. We also know that functional capabilities, mainly physical, show a declining trend after the age of 30.
There is no accepted age when someone is considered to be an older worker. Some studies have focused on those over 55, while others look at those over 45. On average, we reach full physical maturity by the age of 25. We then remain in a period of relative stability before starting to show signs of ageing. However, the ageing process can start as young as 20.
Impact on Physical Health
There has been a lot of research look at the effects of ageing on physical and mental work capacity. Looking at physical capacity, the research has mainly focused on the cardiovascular (heart, arteries, veins) and musculoskeletal (muscles, joints, bones) systems. It has also focussed on body structure and sensory systems.
Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 Max), is accepted as the single best measure of cardiovascular fitness. This shows a clear and linear decline with age. However, changes are dependent on our levels exercise in preceding years. We have the ability to increase fitness, as well as decrease it.
Ageing also brings about changes to the musculoskeletal system. In general, a declining trend in strength, endurance and joint movement is seen across older workers. Many may have a decreased capacity for load bearing work but a large variation exists within the population. Similarly to fitness, strength changes are dependent on our health behaviours in preceding years.
Impact on Mental Health and Cognition
Research also suggests that the systems used for receiving, processing and acting on information decline with age too. However, in terms of work function, little noticeable change can be seen through one’s career. Any decline is usually compensated for by mental characteristics that strengthen with age. These include things like the ability to deliberate, higher motivation to learn, and greater work experience.
There is large variation that exists regarding the effects of ageing on an individual. This is reflected in the recent removal of a forced retirement age. However, increased health risks and trends associated with a decline in certain abilities mean that a larger proportion of older workers may struggle to meet work demands. They may also require additional support within the workplace.
Key determinants of health, disease and future capability are linked to individual health behaviours and not chronological age alone. Workers and organisations should therefore be encouraged to address and promote healthy behaviours now. This will ensure longevity and productivity into the future. Employers should also make accommodations to support the needs of the ageing worker.
What employers can do:
- Ensure good workplace design;
- A safe working environment that reduces the chance of injury;
- Encourage healthy working practices e.g. taking regular breaks, maintaining a good work-life balance, and reporting difficulties quickly;
- Ensure managers are aware of age-related issues and have the skills to support workers;
- Accommodate and support differing cognitive and sensory abilities;
- Manage the physical demands of those with less strength and endurance;
- Reduce physical workload of jobs to reflect normal age-related physical decline i.e 20-25% between 45-65;
- Provide health promotion initiatives and encourage workers to make the right lifestyle choices from an early age;
- Implement good sickness absence management processes including;
- And support employees with health conditions to return to work.
What individual employees can do:
- Engage in regular exercise to ensure that a normal, age-related level of fitness is maintained;
- Participate in some form of regular exercise. Current UK guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week (aiming to be active every day). Engaging in regular exercise can keep physical capacity nearly unchanged in 40-65 year olds;
- Make healthy lifestyle choices with regards to alcohol, caffeine consumption, smoking, and nutrition;
- Report health problems and work difficulties early and get appropriate support;
- and participate in leisure activity.
Investing in a healthy workforce:
There are a number of benefits that ageing workers bring to an organisation. These include higher levels of loyalty, improved motivation to learn, and better reasoning ability. In addition, older workers have greater depth of work experience, plus job-specific skills.
Maintaining a multi-generational workforce also has significant benefits for an organisation. This includes opportunities for mentoring new recruits, maintaining a broader range of skills, and improved staff morale. In contrast to this, removing older workers can be damaging to productivity. It creates dips in efficiency and outputs and increases staff turnover costs.
There are many advantages to investing in a healthy workforce and supporting older workers. Most importantly, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Employees continue to go on working productively, work atmosphere improves, and age-related problems decrease. One recent report suggested those worker who are healthier can be up to 2-3 times more productive.
Good practice examples where organisations have invested have shown a return on investment from 300-500%. The positive return is mainly seen from lower rates of sick leave, work disability cost, and increased productivity.