Tricia O’Neill is Head of Occupational Health & Wellbeing and H&S Education and Competence, at Skanska UK plc. Tricia writes passionately about the values of an age diverse work-force and we thank Tricia for allowing us to share this piece with you.
Age and work – do we care enough?
A person’s ‘workability’ depends on many factors such as their health and functional capacity(physical and mental), competence, their values and attitudes, motivation, work demands, people they work with and how they are managed as well as the work environment .
Age is just another dimension.
There is a culture and perhaps a mindset that in UK plc that workers over a certain age are not interested in developing new skills, trying new roles and are basically winding down. How wrong they are. People stay in the workplace much longer than previous generations sometimes it is due to financial reasons such as lack of pension arrangements but increasingly it is because work provides a sense of purpose and community that people want to stay connected as long as possible and basically belong to a community. This is good for people’s mental wellbeing and self-esteem – which has significant benefits for the UK economy, as they are less likely to require as much health or social care or state benefits.
So what else is affecting the ageing workforce?
- 47% are aged 45 years and older
- 6% are male
- 20% will leave before state pension age (66 years old)
- 23% of those aged between 50-64 years old, report 2 or more long term health conditions
- Whilst those between 45-64 years feel that job security has decreased between 5-15% in the past decade
But work is good for us, good for the business, good for the industry and good for the economy but there are significant factors in the macro-environment that play a role in the decision of the worker to stay in the workforce later in life. Changes to public policy, industry standards and ways of working are as much a part of the solution as a part of the problem.
A PESTEL analysis and impact on ageing workforce
So what about the health and safety implications and the ageing worker?
As we age many of our body systems will not work as efficiently – visual acuity, hearing, musculoskeletal system, cardiovascular system and our cognitive/processing ability. Although chronological age is not an accurate indicator of physical condition/capability, many of which can be affected by lifestyle choices, and from a workplace perspective, we need to be cognisant of the health and safety implications of these changes. Chronic illnesses are more common (23%) of 50-64-year-olds reporting two or more long term health conditions and 25% of these workers are considering stopping work because of their poor health. Many of these long term conditions will be treated with prescription medicines and the adverse side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness may require role adjustments, shift changes and assessment of cognitive demands. So, how do we manage these risks in the workplace?
Alongside this common scenario, there are 4 other health, safety and well-being areas that need consideration.
- Physical work capacity changes
- Muscle power. There is a reduction in strength, endurance, flexibility and power which increases the likelihood of musculoskeletal conditions occurring
- Hearing. Reduction in acuity means that alarms and instructions may be missed or not heard
- Vision. Improved lighting may be required or larger print. Regular eyesight test and peripheral vision checks are recommended
- Mental health and well-being
- Our thinking becomes crystallized vs. fluid, which means we work best with familiar tasks and processes. New requirements may take longer to embed and to do with speed and accuracy
- There are more men living alone than women so the workplace is often considered as a place where they have a sense of belonging and have regular social contact with others, both of these factors are material to good mental well-being. This may of particular relevance given that in construction sector 87.6% are men and 47% of these with an average age of 45 years and older
- Half of the adults aged 55 years and older have experienced mental health issues. (Age UK, 2017)
- Men over the age of 40 are more at risk of suicide in the construction industry and lower-skilled workers are 3.7 times more likely to die as a result of suicide. Living alone without social networks can contribute to the feeling of isolation
- The nature of the construction industry often means workers are living away from home for long periods of time away from their social support, family and healthcare professionals. Maintaining good medication/treatment can be difficult if they are unaware of how to access local GP services
- Work hours and sleep pattern change
- As we age we are less able to cope with shift work and become more of a ‘morning’ person. So fixed shifts or fast forward rotating shifts work bes.
- Additionally, the ability to work full-time hours declines so flexible or reduced hours will help maintain productivity. There is new evidence to suggest that long term sleep debt (over many years) is a precursor to dementia and cognitive impairment, a consideration for those workers who have always done nights or shift work who work on road networks
- Lifestyle choices and welfare
- Providing good canteen/welfare facilities so that workers can access hot food – particularly breakfast and one hot meal mid-shift can make a difference to performance. Those arranging welfare facilities need to be cognisant that some workers will live in ‘lodgings’ and may not have the facility to cook or get food. They will typically opt for convenience food thus increasing the likelihood of weight issues and subsequent musculoskeletal issues
- Metabolism slows down so our need for the amount of food decreases but our food choices remain the same leading to weight gain. The effect of this not only increase risk of musculoskeletal injuries but also long-term health problems such as heart disease or diabetes
- Additionally, the lack of exercise (which is different from the work activities) means individuals work performance may be affected as well as increased likelihood of injury. Long term project should consider how recreational exercise can be accommodated
So commercials aside what should, could or would we consider doing?
There is definitely a lot of rhetoric being shared about the ageing work-force but it is not new. Nor seemingly, is there a plan of action.
We need to think about ‘…the sum of the whole…’ not just the parts – and it needs an approach that is cognisant that the workforce we rely upon, is shrinking and is getting less productive, naturally.
There are 4 areas that could make a difference.
- Age Management approach
- Increase the awareness and knowledge around the impact of age on work across the sector/business. Build the line manager’s capability to support employees with age-related issue and how to adjust the work activities to match the employee capabilities
- Do you offer part-time work/shortened hours for all including those at project level? If not why not – many industries offer a ‘step back’ role or hours as people age it enables the business to retain the skills and knowledge they have invested and meets the decreasing tolerance and pace of work activities of the ageing individual. Could the construction sector do the same – would need a different mindset?
- Ensure your fatigue policy limits the working week – research tells us that people are no more productive working if they work 55 hours+ a week
- Design out health risks. Particular emphasis on manual handling given musculoskeletal power and endurance are reducing year on year as we age. This means the commercial and operations teams need to be cognisant and realistic about the resource requirements for projects factoring in the reducing performance and productivity of the age of their workforce
- Financial planning
- More work and research is needed to understand what needs to be put in place for construction workers to plan their pension and post-working life, including the education of workers. Trade bodies can play a key role in this programme
- Matching job activities to individual capability
- Adopt a physical demands analysisBy understanding the work activity requirements you can then match with individual’s functional capabilities, leading to fewer injuries and ill health
- Where there are concerns about employee’s capability to undertake their usual work introduce functional capacity assessments to establish functional ability rather than being led by a diagnosis
- Offer an age-specific health assessment focused on key areas of physiological changes – eyesight, musculoskeletal, hearing, cognition – give people the opportunity to discuss their concerns and signpost them to relevant resources
- With peripatetic workforce consider ways for them to access GP care such as technology-enabled services such as PushDoctor – whereby workers can have a consultation by phone/skype. This may provide assurance that the individual’s conditions and medications are being managed
- Good diet and nutrition is key to performance and productivity. So ensuring the catering contract provides the right balance of nutrients to increase performance. Additionally, the caterer may be able to offer a ‘take-away’ service wherein one container a nutritious meal can be purchased and reheated in a microwave in the worker’s lodgings
Whatever age we are we all need to feel valued for our contribution but so often in the workplace, we are defined by what we can (or can’t) do, your intrinsic value to the community/workplace and the investment required to keep us going.
Work is good for people, industry and the UK economy – but unless we actively rethink our approach to our (ageing) workforce we run the risk of easing out valuable people from business and society as a whole.
Tricia O’Neill RGN MSc MBA(Dist.) is UK Head of Occupational Health and Well-being and H&S Competence and Education at Skanska UK