We are, as a population, living longer and retiring later. However, a greater number of older employees in the workplace brings its own set of challenges, as Sam Barrett reports


By 2020, one in three workers will be older than 50, according to government statistics.

But, while 50 is often described as the new 40 – sometimes even the new 30 – these older workers bring new health challenges to the workplace.

The removal of the default retirement age in October 2011 may have been a catalyst, with more than a million employees choosing to stay in work beyond 65, but many older people want to work.

Research by Canada Life Group Insurance found that two-thirds of people expect to work beyond retirement age, with 44% feeling forced to do so because they have insufficient pension savings.

Simon Crew, a consultant at Xerox HR Services, says that when these employees hit their 60s, the dynamics will change. “Many of today’s older employees are the healthier ones who have stayed on because they want to; in a few years’ time when people are staying on  because they have to, employers will have a lot more health issues to worry about. They need to start preparing for this now.”

Health needs of older workers

Given this demographic time bomb, understanding the health profile of these older employees is key to putting the right support in place.

For starters, middle age brings with it a whole new set of health risks. “You see more cases of musculoskeletal problems, cancer and cardiovascular disease among older workers,” says Dr Nick Sommerton, a GP and medical director at Bluecrest Health Screening. “These conditions can affect any age, but once you reach 45-50 the risks do start to increase.”

Time can also take its toll in other ways. Obesity increases with age, affecting around one in four adults in the UK and leading to problems such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.

Similarly, arthritis becomes increasingly common from age 40 onwards and even the fittest employee can find that everything from their eyesight to their joints starts to wear out as they get older.

This cocktail of conditions, often coupled with a different attitude to work, means that absence patterns among older workers can be very different to their younger peers. “Older workers tend to have a lower incidence of absence but if they’re off work they tend to be off for a longer period with something more serious, such as cancer or heart disease,” says Rachel Western, principal at Aon Employee Benefits.

On a more positive note, although their bodies may show signs of age, psychologically older employees have a major advantage.

“Studies show that we’re at our happiest in our 60s,” says Professor Mike O’Donnell, medical director at Health Management. “Compared to younger workers, who can feel trapped by their financial commitments, people in their 60s are much more relaxed. This can be a major benefit for employers.”

But while they may be happier, caring responsibilities can put undue stress on older employees. Across the board, around one in nine employees is a working carer and Chris Minett, managing director of Mercer Positive Ageing Company, says this will increase significantly as the workforce ages and health and social care funding remains flat.

“In the next five to 10 years, as many as one in six employees are going to be caring for a relative,” he explains. “If an organisation isn’t alive to this it will become a major issue.”

Supporting older employees

Given this mix of health issues, employers will need to adapt existing health policies to cater for their ageing workforces.

Crew says that a package of screening and education can provide a good basis to a programme. “This can highlight the risk factors and help staff make changes to reduce them,” he says. “It’s also sensible to include advice about managing chronic conditions as these are more prevalent in this age group.”

Virtual GP services can also be particularly useful for an older workforce, enabling them to check out the odd ache or pain or get a repeat prescription without having to wait for an appointment with their own GP.

Western says this convenience will often override any concerns older staff may have about these services. She says: “Many older people prefer to see a real GP, but thanks to video conferencing, virtual appointments are getting closer to the real thing.”

Fitness programmes can also require a subtle tweak to ensure that everyone feels included. For example, it’s sensible to provide gentler forms of exercise such as walking and cycling rather than push employees to compete in marathons.

But, while the incidence of many health problems does increase with age, Minett says it’s wrong to think that older people just want an easy life.

“Activity can be beneficial at any age, so encourage employees to get involved in some form of fitness. Even just standing up and walking around the workplace can be good for you,” he says.

Employers can also help with mental fitness. Brain training games can improve memory and reasoning skills at any age, and they’re easy to deliver through apps and computer programmes.

But, while forgetfulness is a natural part of the ageing process, the growing number of older employees will inevitably mean more cases of dementia in the workplace. O’Donnell says this can cause problems, especially as sufferers are often not aware of the problem.

“It can be a difficult conversation but it’s definitely worth training line managers to do this,” he adds. “Being able to have this type of conversation with an employee, whether about dementia or another sensitive issue, is good management.”

Also feeding into the wellbeing of older employees is support for those caring for relatives. For example, Mercer Positive Ageing Company offers a digital platform, AgeingWorks, which can help staff who are looking for care for a parent or partner.

“We can provide employees with resources and information to help them understand the care system and find the right type of support,” says Minett. “Fifteen years ago, kids didn’t exist in the workplace but today childcare support is a recognised and well-appreciated part of the employee benefits package. Eldercare will go through the same evolution.”

Changing workplace design

As well as introducing support to help counter some of the health issues associated with ageing, organisations may also wish to change the design of the workplace to accommodate older employees. As an example, O’Donnell recommends being sensitive to hearing and eyesight issues.

“Older employees may have difficulties in these areas, so make sure there’s plenty of light and the workplace isn’t too noisy,” he says. “If you’re in any doubt, ask them what they need.”

Workstation assessments are also important for older employees. “Arthritis can be an issue,” says Western. “Adjusting the workstation can help to alleviate the symptoms and make it easier for them to keep working.”

Some employers have even overhauled the entire workplace to accommodate older employees. For example, German car manufacturer BMW famously reinvented one of its production lines, adding in features such as ergonomic chairs, wooden floors and more daylight to help its employees stay fit and productive.

While this grabbed plenty of positive publicity for BMW, there are also legal reasons why employers should consider adapting the workplace.

Dr Mike O’Reilly, clinical director at OH3, explains: “Under the Equality Act, employers must make reasonable adjustments where an employee’s disability prevents them from carrying out their duties. Each case will vary but an employer could face legal action if it doesn’t make these adjustments.”

He also says the definition of disability is due to expand as a result of European Union legislation. This will mean that reasonable adjustments will apply where an impairment ‘may hinder the full and effective participation in professional life on equal basis’. “This could mean the legislation applies to many more employees, especially those at the older end of the workforce,” he adds.

But while there are adjustments that can be made to the workspace itself, perhaps the biggest change that will benefit the ageing workforce is flexible working. Allowing older employees to adjust their working hours to suit their needs, whether this is caring responsibilities or because they want to work fewer hours, will enable employers to retain their skills and experience. “The workplace is changing,” adds Minett. “Employers must make it age-friendly, for people of all ages.”

Health insurance for older employees

Providing health insurance benefits such as income protection, critical illness and private medical insurance can become prohibitively expensive when an employee reaches their 60s. “Unfortunately the risk of a claim increases with age, so premiums escalate,” says Simon Crew, consultant at Xerox HR Services. “Unless an employer can convince younger employees to pay more for cover, which is unlikely, it can become very expensive to provide these benefits.”

As a result the group risk industry has obtained an exemption allowing benefits to be withdrawn at state pension age. However, Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance, warns: “Employers need to make sure benefits are written to state pension age rather than age 65, or they won’t qualify for the exemption.”

It’s also important to consider that there’s also less need for some benefits among older employees. For many, financial pressures such as the mortgage will be off their hands, and with a pension potentially available, group risk products will be less important.

But, with the need for treatment potentially increasing, medical insurance remains an attractive benefit. Crew says that a hybrid product could be a more affordable option.

“I expect more products for this age group to emerge,” he adds. “As the workforce ages it will force insurers to be more creative.”