The ageing workforce: you can teach an old dog new tricks

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Our research on wellbeing in the workplace, ‘The Wellbeing Agenda’, shows the top challenge for employers is the effect of the ageing workforce - but why is this having such an impact on organisations?

Nationally, we are feeling the impact of an ageing population. The proportion of over 65s that make up the UK population is fast approaching 20%1 and will continue to rise. People are not only living longer through improvements in health, diet and preventive care – but fertility rates are declining, with women having fewer children than previous generations. This has put a huge pressure on the Government and the NHS is feeling the strain due to rising healthcare costs and continual funding cuts.  

How is the ageing population affecting UK businesses?

Over 30% of the workplace are over the age of 502. The removal of the default retirement age is giving employees the choice to stay in work longer - although for some it is a necessity rather than a choice. The gradual increases in state pension coupled with the fact that people are unable to retire for financial reasons means they are being forced to stay in the workplace for longer. This could impact on productivity and morale amongst these people, which in turn presents a challenge for employers.

One of the key conclusions from our research is that “the future is closer than you think”; therefore employers need to start considering the issues and opportunities that retirement can bring to their workforce. In particular, those in the 50+ age group will often include senior talent who harbour valuable experience and knowledge that the organisation could lose without appropriate succession planning. While some employees will have a clear plan on what they plan to do, many others will feel very worried about losing something that has been such an integral part of their daily lives. Individuals will have many different reasons for staying in work longer, all of which will bring specific challenges that organisations need to act upon now.

How should employers support employees through this stage of their lives?

Employers need a comprehensive strategy in place for supporting and managing their ageing workforce, driven by clear HR and people metrics and analytics. The Wellbeing Agenda showed that just over half of organisations use HR metrics to drive strategy. By understanding the age profiles, retirement intentions, personal development needs and possible retraining opportunities available, businesses will be able to succession plan more effectively and help the organisation to monitor the flight risks of those individuals.
Rated joint second in terms of challenges for employers in the Agenda; flexibility is important throughout the organisation but in particular, amongst the ageing workforce. Allowing employees to work flexibly by reducing their hours, become part-time and even utilise graded retirement plans is essential for workers who would like to gradually retire - or continue working on a flexible basis, rather than just having a final exit date.

Having well-trained and supportive line managers within the organisation is important; our research showed that 69% of employers included line manager training within their wellbeing strategy. Line managers need to be able to manage and support employees in all age groups, understanding that not only the younger employees need support and guidance in order to flourish. They need to be advocates of flexible working, be able to dispel any stereotypes or bias around the older worker and be able to identify any early signs of stress or deteriorating health issues.

Implementing personal development plans will help address training needs which could even result in targeted training sessions to help employees function within their daily roles. Providing sufficient training in the ever-developing area of technology is important in keeping all employees upskilled and efficient in using business systems. Providing education on a range of topics will also help equip employees; financial education around pensions will give them a better understanding of their options in retirement. Teaching employees about care support options and the pathways available will also help them manage immediate care needs for a relative or partner.

Older workers will have a wealth of information and knowledge around their job role and the organisation. Employers should take advantage of sharing this knowledge by introducing a buddying system among workers. Helping everyone to learn, this also works in role reversal; with older workers learning skills and practices from the younger generation. This is also great for collaboration and ensuring that these colleagues are brought together.

A happy and healthy workforce is a more productive workforce. Therefore prioritising health and wellbeing for all employees within the organisation is important. The modern day workforce is made up of around five generations working together. Employers need to understand that every employee within each of these generations will have their own unique challenges. As organisations will invariably see more age-related illnesses, which will affect both the mental and physical health of employees, it is important that employers have a robust absence management strategy - with input from both occupational health and rehabilitation.

When looking to implement health and wellbeing initiatives, it is vital that employers understand employees’ needs and then look to address these. Employers can do this by running an employee survey, which is an effective way of addressing the entire workforce whilst providing a non-discriminatory way of understanding the specific needs of the older employees too. In terms of understanding the effectiveness of a wellbeing strategy, our research put surveys as the second most useful method.

Employers could also implement interventions, such as:

  • health checks to identify health issues at an early stage

  • ergonomic desks set up to reduce risks of musculoskeletal issues

  • hearing or sight tests

  • a robust Employee Assistance Programme with access to counselling or bereavement support.

To summarise, the effects of the ageing workforce is unavoidable and is imminently upon most of us, if not already here. The advancements in medical provisions and the longevity of people means that employees will be in the workplace for even longer, exacerbating the issues that the ageing workforce causes. Employers need to consider how this will affect their business and what steps they will put in place to address this.

1 Office of National Statistics

2 CIPD - Avoiding the demographic crunch