Optimising health in an ageing workforce

The changing workforce


One of the enduring fascinations of the stoic philosopher and Roman statesman Marcus Aurelius was the nature of change, and how not just the world that surrounds is in a state of flux, the cosmos itself is always in a process of development and transformation.


Perhaps Aurelius was the first great mind to alight on the concept of change management. However, one thing hasn’t change since the days of the Roman Empire, and that’s the one constant – the constancy of change itself.


And, of course, the workplace is subject to this is much as anything else – new processes, new technologies and new occupations emerge and often supersede what was previously there. Workforces themselves also change massively – just compare the demographics of today’s workforce to that of, say, 60 or 70 years ago. People are entering the workplace later since there are more opportunities for further and higher education, and additionally many professions obviously some form of qualification before an employee can enter into a career in them.


As the UK population ages, this will have an increasing impact within the workplace. According to the UK Parliament’s data on the topic of the ageing population, 10 million UK residents are over the age of 65. That’s equivalent to nearly 16% of the UK population as a whole. And population experts estimate that this figure will increase by another 5 and a half million over the next two decades and nearly be double what it is now by the time 2050 rolls around. They point out that by this time about 1 in 4 people in the country will be over the age of 65.


Of course it’s impossible to predict what a 2050 workplace would look like, and also impossible to predict what medical science will have achieved by then. But in the here and now, one of the alterations that have been made to employment rules is the abolishment of the compulsory retirement age.


In terms of workplace wellbeing, what this means is that there’s now a longer future to think about for many employees – and this over time is likely to become a significant element in workplace health strategies.


A healthier today, a healthier tomorrow


It’s no secret that healthy behaviours and habits can have a genuine positive impact on health. Getting the recommended amount of physical exercise can have a sizeable effect on reducing health risks. NHS Choices states that there is an ‘up to 50%’ reduction in the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and strokes just from getting enough exercise. And that’s not all – exercise can, they say, lower the risk of early death by up to 30%. For osteoarthritis the risk is lowered by up to an incredible 83%.


All of which goes to highlight just how important health education is going to be if the workforce is to maintain optimum health for the longer working life. This may take the form of Government awareness campaigns and may also be of greater focus in individual organisations’ wellbeing policies and strategy.


More and more employers now offer a range of wellbeing benefits – one example being employee health cover – cover providers such as AXA PPP corporate medical insurance offer a range of policies for organisations with hundreds of staff, as well as SME sector business and self-employed people. Employee assistance programmes are also offered in many organisations – these take the form of a third party counselling service to help anyone who is going through difficulties such as divorce or bereavement.


If sickness absence figures over the last 20 years are anything to go by, we’re on the right track regarding workplace health. The Office for National Statistics data shows that days lost to sickness – 178 million in 1993, had dropped to 131 million by 2011 – a decrease of over a quarter, which is remarkable. And in terms of the economics, it doesn’t take much in the way of calculation to see just how much money that is worth to business.


But how healthy is the workforce right now? According to one study that was carried out recently, two-thirds of workers believe themselves to be in ‘good or excellent health’ but also ‘display two or more risk factors’ for disease – these include things like smoking and obesity.


The good news though was that a strong link was found between different healthy behaviours – those who got enough exercise were less likely to smoke, those who ate healthily were more likely to be getting enough exercise, and so on.


The decrease in the number of people smoking, as well as better understanding of health issues generally, and more open attitudes towards mental health – these will all likely combine in shaping a healthier workforce for the longer working life. It will, however, require continued focus on employee health as an objective for continued improvement.