Joshua Catlett focuses on the assessment of functional capacity and supporting employees with long-term health conditions at work
Across Europe we are seeing a change in the demographics of our workforce. As a result of increasing life expectancy and lower birth rates, the average age of our workforce is on the rise. It has been predicted that by 2025, there will be twice as many workers aged between 50 and 64 than those under the age of 25. By 2050, this figure is expected to increase to 33 % of workers over the age of 601.
In this article, we explore what being part of an ageing workforce means for the individual worker and their employers, what can and should be done to support longevity in the workplace, and what the business case is for investing in keeping the workforce healthy.
Ageing at work - what it means for individual workers and employers A recent survey by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy suggested that more than six in 10 workers were concerned about being too tired to continue normal hours when asked to imagine that they had to work into old age, while nearly two-thirds feared developing a serious illness which could affect their ability to do their job2.
First, it is important to recognise that age alone does not determine one's health or bring illness. Health is in fact influenced by many factors, most notably lifestyle, exercise and diet3. That said, we do know that the risk of many diseases does increase with age and functional capabilities, mainly physical, show a declining trend after the age of 304.
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. We know that, on average, we reach full physical maturity by the age of 25, remain in a period of relative stability and then start to show signs of ageing. However, the ageing process can start as young as 205.
There has been a large amount of research looking into the effects of ageing on physical and mental work capacity. In consideration of physical capacity, the research has mainly focused on the cardiovascular (heart, arteries, veins) and musculoskeletal (muscles, joints, bones) systems, body structures and sensory systems. Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 Max), which is widely accepted as the single best measure of cardiovascular fitness, shows a clear and linear decline with age. However, changes are very much dependent on our levels of aerobic exercise in preceding years and have the ability to increase as well as decrease4.
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, however a large variation exists within the population and, similarly to cardiovascular fitness, is highly dependent on our health behaviours in preceding years4,5.
Research also suggests that the systems responsible for receiving, processing and acting on information decline with age too. However, in terms of actual work functioning, little noticeable change can be seen through one's career - any decline is usually compensated for by mental characteristics that strengthen with age, such as ability to deliberate, higher motivation to learn and greater work experience. 4,5
There is large variation that exists regarding the effects of ageing on an individual, which 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 as a population, a larger proportion of older workers may struggle to meet demands and require additional support within the workplace.
Given that key determinants of health, disease and future capability are linked to individual health behaviours and not chronological age alone, workers and organisations should be encouraged to address and promote healthy behaviours now to ensure longevity and productivity into the future. Employers should also make accommodations to adequately 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 and occupational disease
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 adequate skills to effectively support ageing workers
Accommodate and support differing cognitive and sensory abilities
Managing the physical demands of those with less strength and endurance
Physical workload of jobs should be decreased with advancing age to reflect normal age related physical decline (typically 20-25% between 45-65)
Provide health promotion initiatives and encourage workers to make the right lifestyle choices from an early age and throughout their working lives
Implement good sickness absence management processes including support for 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 exercise guidelines recommend adults take at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity each week (aiming to be active every day)6. Engaging in regular physical exercise can keep physical capacity nearly unchanged in 40-65 year olds4.
Make healthy lifestyle choices with regards to alcohol and caffeine consumption, smoking and nutrition
Report health problems and work difficulties early and get appropriate support
Participate in leisure activity.
Investing in a healthy workforce
There are a number of benefits that ageing workers bring to an organisation including higher levels of loyalty, improved motivation to learn, better reasoning and deliberation, greater depth of work experience, and job specific skills to name a few. Research also shows that maintaining a multi-generational workforce can have significant benefits for an organisation, including opportunities for mentoring new recruits, maintaining a broader range of skills and experience and improved staff morale. In contrast to this, removing older workers can be damaging to productivity, create dips in efficiency and outputs and increase staff turnover costs. 7
There are also many advantages to investing in a healthy workforce and supporting older workers at work, and the benefits far outweigh the costs of implementation. Employees continue to go on working productively, work atmosphere improves and age related problems decrease. One recent report also highlighted research suggesting those employees who are healthier can be up to 2-3 times more productive than those in ill health. 8.
Good practice examples where organisations have invested have shown a return on investment between £3 for every £1 spent, to £5 for every £1 spent. The positive return is mainly seen from lower rates of sick leave, lower work disability costs and increased productivity.
1. Ilmarinen J, 1999, Ageing Workers in the EUStatus and Promotion of Work Ability, Employability and Employment. Helsinki: Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Ministry of Labour, 1999.
2. HSE, 2005, Facts and misconceptions about age, health status and employability. http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl_pdf/2005/hsl0520.pdf
3 - All figures are from YouGov Plc (for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy). Total sample size was 2,041 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken 3-6 May, 2013. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).
4- Aging Workers. Illmarinen J. - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1740170/pdf/v058p00546.pdf
5. Promoting active ageing in the workplace Prof. Juhani Ilmarinen , JIC Ltd, Gerontology Research Centre University of Jyväskylä, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (1970-2008) https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/articles/promoting-active-ageing-in-the-workplace
6. Current physical activity guidelines reference - World Health Organization (2010) Global recommendations on physical activity for health. ISBN: 9789241599979
8. 'Healthy Work', a report published by Bupa in partnership with the Work Foundation, C3 Collaborating for Health and RAND Europe
Joshua Catlett, is managing and clinical director for FirstPoint Health and Public Relations Officer for the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics (ACPOHE)