Older women in the workplace

While health issues affect all workers, there are some specific issues which particularly affect older women and are often neglected or overlooked by employers. Women are more likely to suffer from stress in the workplace. An HSE survey into self-reported workplace illness found incidences of work related stress, anxiety and depression to be higher amongst women than men in most age groups. Women aged 45-54 reported higher levels of work related stress, depression and anxiety than all other age groups. While this may in part be explained by women feeling it is more socially acceptable to talk about how they feel than men, some of it may also result from the pressures of juggling work and caring responsibilities.

Another cause of stress and physiological symptoms for many older women is the menopause. The TUC has long argued that the menopause is a workplace health issue which is all too often overlooked by employers. The average age for the onset of the menopause is 51-52 and the period of hormonal change before, during and after the menopause can last for six years. While many women may go through the menopause with relatively little discomfort, many others report a range of symptoms from the well known (hot flushes and irritability) to the less well known (sleep disturbances, fatigue, depression, anxiety, impaired memory).

Seventy per cent of those surveyed had not disclosed the fact that they were experiencing symptoms relating to the menopause to their manager. When asked what adjustments could be made at work, seventy five per cent said it would help if their manager was more aware of the issue and 63% said that flexible working would help them to cope with symptoms. The fact that women do not tend to disclose the fact that they are menopausal to their managers yet they would like their managers to be more aware of the issue presents a conundrum and points to the fact that the menopause is still a taboo issue for many people.

The workplace is changing

There is a higher proportion of older people in Britain now than at any time in recent history and it is likely to increase. At present one in every six people is over the age of 65, but by 2033 that is expected to rise to almost one in four. This is partly because we are living longer but also because birth-rates are falling.

We are also seeing changes in the number of older people in the workplace. The number of people aged 65 and over reached the 1 million mark for the first time in 2013, against 205,000 in 1998. That is likely to rise with both the planned increase in the State Pension Age for men and women and the removal of the mandatory retirement age which gives people the ability to work longer should they want to. More people will also be forced to work beyond the State Pension Age because the growing financial uncertainty means that more and more people are continuing to work longer. Additionally there has been a big fall in the number of people who retire early as employers reduce benefits from occupational pension schemes.

At the same time the recent rise in unemployment and continuing discrimination by employers means that many older people are unable to get jobs. In August 2010 the TUC reported that long-term unemployment for 50-64 year olds is increasing at a much sharper rate than for 25-49 year olds.

What is an older worker?

Aging is a gradual process and there is no single point when someone becomes an “older worker”. Some organisations define an older worker as one who is over 50, while others only cover those either over 65 or over the State Pension Age.

The definition is not important. What does matter is that the different issues that are associated with aging are taken on board – at whatever age they develop.

Aging is not about decline, but change

It should not be assumed that age will directly relate to a person’s ability to do a job. Many older workers have a greater physical and mental ability than similar people half their age.

Despite this many employers believe that older workers will be less productive or more prone to injury or sickness absence. They are not. Research indicates that job performance is broadly similar across all age groups, as are sickness absence rates. A report by the HSE’s Health and Safety Laboratories exploded many of the myths around older workers including ones around their mental abilities and adaptability.

However some abilities, including strength and mental agility decline in most people over a certain age, but much less and much later than many people think. Muscle strength decline is unlikely to be noticeable until after the age of 65 and cognitive performance does not usually show any marked decrease until after 70.

In some industries, musculoskeletal disorders are more common amongst people over 45. This is the case in construction and agriculture, and is simply because of the very preventable damage that this type of work is causing to the workforce. They also have a slightly higher fatality rate, but that may be because they are also much more likely to be self-employed, and self-employed workers have a fatality rate that is over twice that of employed people. This could get worse as 84% of the increase in the number of self-employed since 2008 was for those aged 50 and above.

Although health and physical capacity can deteriorate as we get older, several other functions improve with age. A report for the European Agency for safety and health at work stated “Mental growth is the success story of ageing. For example, strategic thinking, sharp-wittedness, considerateness, wisdom, ability to deliberate, ability to rationalise, control of life, holistic perception and language skills improve with age”.

Studies have shown that when measuring the work performance in the workplace, work experience compensates for the decline of some basic cognitive processes such as memory functions and psychomotor skills.

Also, contrary to common myth, older workers can learn new things. Learning is not dependent on age, but the learning process changes with age and speed of learning may change.

In summary, the aging process means that workers develop different skills and abilities as they get older and active participation in working life is an important positive driver for active ageing. Each generation has its own strengths and weaknesses and the strengths of older workers should be better identified and utilised with the aim of making them a valuable asset in the workplace.

For that reason, we need to ensure that work, and how it is organised, is flexible enough to ensure that any older workers who choose to do so can continue to work for as long as they wish and are able. Older workers should not be forced to work indefinitely however, and we need to ensure that they have the ability to make their own choices of when and how they wish to retire.

Towards a longer working life

We must not forget that some workers do not live to make it to retirement, while many more have to leave their job early because of ill-health brought on by their work.

People in low paid jobs are more likely to die young. Nearly 20% of male manual workers will die before they reach the state pension age, compared to 7% of those from a higher social class. They are also less likely to be able to enjoy their retirement. This proportion will grow as the pension age increases.

Both men and women who were manual workers live for four years less, but even in the years before death manual workers are far more likely to be in bad health. They are also far less likely to have an occupational pension that gives them the option of retiring early and are more likely to be dependent on the state pension, and so be forced to stay in work even when they are in poor health.

That is why the best thing that union safety representatives can do is to continue to try to ensure that all workers have a safe and healthy workplace to make it more likely that older people will be able to enjoy a long and illness-free old age. That means removing exposure to hazards and reducing risk for everyone from the day they enter the workplace to the day they retire.

Article produced by the TUC from their report ‘The health and safety of older workers’