Recent figures from the DWP show that there are now over nine million workers aged between 50 and 74. Over 65s number over a million. However, many workplaces still assume that a one-size-fits-all approach will do when addressing issues such as health and safety needs, ergonomics, the work environment, driving policies and annual leave.
These assumptions are often born of common misconceptions regarding the biological effects of ageing and negative stereotypes about older workers.
An example of this is the assumption that health and employability declines with age, whilst statistics show that such a decline occurs on only a small percentage of older workers. Even if there is a decline, for many jobs, it has no effect at all and adjustments can be brought into work environments to take account of emerging disabilities.
Misconceptions held by employers, often those of a younger generation, can affect the way that they perceive the capabilities of older workers and this can feed through into the way that they manage this sector of the workforce.
Health and safety
Employers should not use health and safety as an excuse to avoid taking on older people.
Research carried out for the HSE has revealed the following insights:
62% of workers over the age of 50 describe themselves as feeling as fit as ever. The main barriers to their involvement with work are structural and attitudinal.
Cognitive performance that affects workplace health and safety, such as intelligence, knowledge, and use of language, do not generally show any marked decrease until after the age of 70.
Although cognitive abilities can decrease with age, the decline is unlikely to affect safe performance of tasks; older workers will compensate by using experience, better judgement and job knowledge.
Although there is a tendency for the speed of learning to slow with age, provision of additional time and practice will enhance the standard of learning and performing new skills in older workers.
Older workers are less likely than their younger colleagues to have occupational accidents, but when they do have them, more serious injuries or disabilities are more likely to occur. The recovery time from injury also tends to be longer.
Issues surrounding older workers
Flexible working is one of the key areas. Most employers will offer this option to employees although it is normally associated with such groups as parents juggling childcare commitments. However, part-time and flexible work options can be very helpful when older workers are keen to stay on beyond the state pension age.
If managers and employees have had awareness training about the issues surrounding older workers, they can feel more confident about speaking up if those issues – such as health and support – affect them. Such areas for discussion could include improvements in workplace temperature and ventilation for menopausal women, access to cold water, ensuring access to toilets, and providing more frequent toilet breaks.
It’s also the case that as workers get older, they may suffer from disturbed sleep and this can affect their performance if they are expected to stick to a rigid, 9 to 5 work pattern. A flexible approach, allowing them to start later and leave later can be just the thing they need to continue to make a positive contribution to the company. Older people may also experience personal issues that can come with age, including evolving family responsibilities as they care for their families, spouses and ageing parents.
Older women in the workplace
We have covered various issues that affect all older workers but there are some subjects that are specific to older women, and often tend to be neglected by employers.
An HSE survey has found that the incidence of work-related stress, depression and anxiety is higher in women aged 45-54 than in any other group.
Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the menopause, for which the average age of onset is 51-52 and can last as long as six years.
Many women report a range of symptoms, from hot flushes and irritability to sleep disturbances, fatigue, depression, anxiety, impaired memory.
Next month, we’ll take a look at some of the things that employers can do regarding risk assessments and older workers.