Supporting older workers with long-term health conditions is crucial for recruiting and retaining older talent

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With businesses struggling to recruit, it’s more important than ever that employers expand their search for the best talent. Post-pandemic, we know that businesses are losing the experience and skills of older workers, with more than 330,000 people 50–64 having retired early since the beginning of 2020.

The early exodus of workers in their fifties and sixties, alongside changing immigration rules, mean almost half of all employers are finding it difficult to fill vacancies.

Earlier this year, the Office of National Statistics spoke to people in their 50s and 60s about why they had left work. For some, this was a positive choice – they felt they had saved enough for a decent standard of living in retirement.

But this wasn’t the case for everyone. Almost one in six (15 per cent) had left because of Covid-19, and nearly one in seven (13 per cent) because of ill-health or disability. The latest data shows that almost a fifth (18 per cent) of those who haven’t returned to work are on an NHS waiting list for medical treatment, which increases to 35 per cent of those who left for health-related reasons.

Luke Price: "Older workers have a huge wealth of experience and skills, but ageism in the workplace means we are at risk of losing these skills altogether."

Now, there are more job vacancies than there are people looking for work. This is partially because more people are classing themselves as economically inactive. They are not actively seeking work because the kind of jobs they need with sufficient flexibility to fit around competing demands on their time and their own lifestyle preferences, are not out there. We need more jobs that are designed with flexibility from the start and which offer access to support which is a key factor in retaining employees. 

Access to support is a key factor in retaining employees. Those who have never left work are more likely to say they have access to support from employers – such as occupational health, support for mental or physical health concerns and reasonable adjustments for health and wellbeing.

So, what can employers do to enable older workers to stay in work, or to get back in to work after they’ve left?

One big part of the puzzle is supporting employees with health conditions. Nearly half (45 per cent) of people 50–64 have at least one long-term health condition, and without the right support, many feel unable to manage their health alongside their work. This not only takes away a vital source of income and purpose for individuals, but also means that employers are missing out on skills and experience. Often, small adjustments to their role mean that they can keep working to retirement age and beyond, if that is what they want.

Good line manager support is crucial

Last year, we spoke to older workers with long-term health conditions to find out about their experiences of work. What we found was that good line management was crucial. It is vital that employers have policies and processes in place to support people with long-term conditions. It is equally important that line managers receive the training they need to manage people with long-term conditions sensitively and effectively, as the first port of call for employees. Many of the people we spoke to felt that support and understanding from their manager was just as important as ‘official’ adjustments. 

Being able to have early and open conversations with their line manager means that people with health conditions can head off any issues before they reach crisis point. Not all managers currently feel equipped to have this conversation, and employers should prioritise training for line managers on how to approach conversations about health, using best practice guidelines.

Photograph: iStock

It is important to recognise that the impact of health conditions may change over time, so it is vital that the conversation is ongoing. There are also steps employers can take to support their workers’ health and wellbeing more generally, such as actively encouraging a healthy work–life balance and offering access to support such as occupational health.

Promote flexible working

Alongside providing line managers with the tools they need to support workers with long-term conditions, employers can be doing much more to promote flexible working. Flexible working practices are the key to making sure many more people can work for as long as they want to. More than a third (36 per cent) of the economically inactive people in their 50s and 60s who said they would consider returning to work said that flexibility would be the most important factor in choosing a new job.

It is not just people with long-term conditions who stand to benefit from flexible working practices. Research shows that flexibility has a range of benefits for everyone, including increased job satisfaction and improved productivity. Many employers already recognise these benefits, and are taking action to advertise jobs as flexible, and to manage that flexibility – but not all. That is why we need government to legislate to ensure workers can request flexible working from day one of their employment and introduce a single enforcement body to make sure that employers are meeting their responsibilities.

Because older workers with health conditions are more likely to leave the labour market, we also need to make it easier for them to return to work if they can. Making sure they have a suitable, flexible job is a good start, but there are other steps employers can take to reduce barriers. Ageing Better’s research shows that ageism is a significant barrier to the employment and re-employment of older workers. Over a third (36 per cent) of people in their 50s and 60s felt that their age would disadvantage them in the job market. This is not good enough for older workers, or for the businesses that so desperately need their skills and experience.

Best practice in recruitment

Making sure that words and phrases in job adverts do not put off older workers (for example, asking for a ‘recent graduate’) is also important. So is following best practice guidelines for recruitment more generally, such as using standardised applications rather than CVs, and having a diverse panel to interview candidates. These steps have a noticeable impact on older workers’ willingness to apply for jobs.

Older workers have a huge wealth of experience and skills, but ageism in the workplace means we are at risk of losing these skills altogether. Government and employers must work together to reverse the post-pandemic trend of people in their 50s and 60s leaving the labour market prematurely. This starts with acknowledging that a multigenerational workforce will not happen by accident, and much more needs to be done to support older workers to stay in work.

For more information on recruiting, retaining and supporting older workers see: ageing-better.org.uk

Luke Price is Senior evidence manager for work at Centre for Ageing Better


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