Retaining older workers – barriers and opportunities

Over the next decade, the changing age profile of the workforce will be the most significant development in the UK labour market, as a third of workers will be over 50 by 2020.

Employers will be expected to respond to this demographic shift by making work more attractive and feasible for older workers, enabling them to work up to and beyond State Pension Age (SPA) if they are capable.

The government has recognised the importance of the issue and therefore The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was asked by the Department of Health to commission Public Health guidance for employers and older employees. The aim of the evidence based review Workplace Health – Older Employees was to identify effective ways of promoting and protecting the health
of older workers.

A total of 67 studies were included in the review and each study was assessed for quality and relevance to the UK. The evidence from the included studies were synthesised and five main themes affecting older employees’ retention were identified. The themes were: Employee’s experience of work; employer attitudes towards older employees; access to training; opportunities to flexible working, and employer’s support on retirement- decision making.

An individual’s experience of work, such as how attached is to their job, has an impact on their decision about continuing employment. A number of factors contribute to their experience of work and can have a great, positive impact on employees’ self-esteem and identity. Work does not only provide a source of supplementing income for older workers; attachment to job content and its purpose, friendships and personal relationships with colleagues are often equally important. Employers should keep these issues in mind when seeking to attract or retain older workers.

Retaining and hiring older workers, is greatly influenced by employers’ attitudes toward them. Evidence suggest that employers’ positive attitudes towards older workers is associated with intent to employ them and willingness to make workplace adjustments for them. Unfortunately employers’ negative attitudes still play a great role in older employees’ opportunities of finding and retaining employment.

Making use of training opportunities is likely to be particularly important for older workers who wish to change employer or change roles. Photograph: iStock / People Images

There are strong assumptions among employers that older workers are always seeking for full-time roles, would not accept sectoral working conditions, are unwilling to work unsocial hours or would want higher pay than the sectoral norm.

Equally, employers’ perceptions of older workers’ attitudes toward training may have negative impact on job retention. It is widely believed among employers that older workers lack confidence to train, have less interest in attending to training and are less likely to identify their own training needs.

In reality, gaining access to and making use of training opportunities is likely to be particularly important for older workers who wish to change employer or change roles as part of gradual retirement. Research has also shown that offering flexible working to older employees is associated with positive attitudinal outcomes and job staff retention.

There are several factors contributing to the effective implementation of flexible working for older staff at workplace; there needs to be adequate policy and project planning and resourcing in place. Effective communication of the flexible working policies to staff are also essential as older workers often have a lack of understanding and knowledge of flexible working provisions and their individual eligibility.

Several barriers, however, that affect employers’ possibilities of implementing flexible working policies have been identified. Firstly, there might be operational and economical pressures on business provision and simply the nature of the job may prevent developing such practices.

Most importantly, the lack of recognition of age as an equality issue in the workplace and the lack of knowledge of age management techniques and strategies are likely to play an important role in older workers’ opportunities and desire to carry on working.

In addition, it is good to keep in mind that these findings may have implications for the health and retirement outcomes of different labour market groups and for labour market inequalities. It is very unlikely that workplace policies alone impact on job retention of older workers. Employees’ financial position is likely to effect on continuing to work and decision to retire.

Those with the highest incomes, most favourable pension prospects and possibly skill levels are in the position of having greatest freedom of choice over labour market exit; whereas workers in lower-skilled roles with lower incomes may be seeking to work beyond the current typical retirement age with very limited individual freedom of choice of when to retire.

In the very near future, businesses will need to develop their policies and shift their attitudes toward older employees in order to find effective ways of managing expectations of their staff but also to secure flexible workforce supply in an ageing society.

The NICE review Workplace Health – Older Employees here

Dr Tyna Taskila is research fellow at the Faculty of Education and Health, University of Greenwich