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Maximising the health potential of the older workforce

Maximising the health potential of the older workforce

Dr Mark Simpson, Chief Medical Officer of Health Management -  a 985 framework supplier - discusses the ways to maximise the health potential of the older workforce.

There has been a huge shift in the age demographics of workforces in recent years; a change that will only continue to advance over the next 30 years. Only 53% of people aged 55-64 in the UK are currently working, but for the first time in 25 years, this percentage is beginning to rise. By April 2020 the state pension age for both sexes will be 66. This will further rise to 67 by 2028 and the Work and Pensions Secretary has confirmed to raise this further to 68 for those now entering the workforce, although no date has been set for this. A recent Think Tank report recommended that this should rise to age 75 but the government has confirmed there are no plans for this. 


We will review occupational health issues for older workers below, however there is no consistent definition of an older worker in published research. Studies vary between using 55-59 as the oldest age group, and offering an open-ended age group of over 55, with no further breakdown of ages within this.

When looking at occupational injuries, hearing loss and sickness absence, studies show that the oldest age group (55-60) had fewer accidents than the younger age groups, likely due to greater experience. Linked to this, whilst hearing loss is more likely in older workers, studies have shown that it has little impact on tasks such as driving; again likely due to experience. Older workers generally also tend to have lower short-term absence rates in terms of both duration and frequency.

With regards to shift work, research from a study has shown that workers aged 56-65 had the same compensation claim rate as those aged under 25. Additionally, older age had no correlation to worse healthcare outcomes in the case of overtime.

There are many occupational health actions that can be put into place to delay or mitigate the impacts of ageing, some of which we will outline further below. Health checks and mental health support are viewed positively by older workers, as are screening and detection programmes for occupational diseases. The Work Ability Index (WAI) is a self-report instrument that measures an individual’s own judgement of their work ability and covers seven main areas, including own prognosis and current ability compared to lifetime best. The WAI has been shown to correspond effectively with objective measures from medical examinations.

Both employee and employer attitudes towards older workers need to be challenged as the age profile of the workforce changes. Reports have stated older workers are just as capable of grasping new skills at the same rate as their younger colleagues. Older workers are also well suited to mentoring roles, due to their combination of knowledge and experience. Employer beliefs are often that an older worker will either have higher levels of sickness leave, they’re overqualified or even underperforming. However, older workers can be managed through a company’s capability and attendance procedures in the same way as staff of any other age.

The government’s eradication of a mandatory retirement age is another huge breakthrough. Their role will shift towards promoting the number of older people in the workplace, as well as monitor the effectiveness of legislation.

There are many specific actions businesses can adopt to maximise workplace productivity, achieve legal compliance and meet equality policy requirements for older workers:

  1. Task design
Specific tasks that require strength, speed or endurance should be assessed against the capabilities of the older worker. Despite strength and aerobic exercise ability naturally declining with age, regular exercise and training can have a beneficial effect in slowing this down.
  2. Job design
The majority of those aged over 65 show no cognitive impairment, so businesses should design jobs to accommodate the skills and capabilities of different age groups.
  3. Chronic disease
Reasonable adjustments can be made to older workers who may develop a chronic disease, allowing them to still work effectively in their modified roles.
  4. Shift work
As some evidence suggests that over 50s experience greater difficulty in adapting to shift work changes, this age group could be given priority to transfer to day work.
  5. Hours of work
As 25% of workers aged 50-65 have family caregiving responsibilities, a combination of reduced hours and flexibility could be beneficial.
  6. Training needs
Older workers value training as much as everyone else – businesses could offer their preferred training methods of on-the-job training, one-to-one training and practical training.
  7. Sickness absence management
Whilst older workers have fewer spells of sickness absence, the duration of absence is likely to be longer. Allowing older workers more flexibility can be highly cost beneficial and will make returning to work after sickness less difficult.

In order to construct a fair and comprehensive programme for employing older workers, the actions described above can be considered as key components towards achieving this. As the age demographics of the workforce continue to change over the years, businesses would benefit from continuously adapting and moulding to these.

Dr Mark Simpson
Chief Medical Officer
Health Management

For more information on ESPO's Occupational Health framework (985) please click here, or contact the Managing People and Professional Services team on 0116 294 4072 or email