A recent Health and Safety Executive literature review of age trends in employment in the UK has confirmed what we all know – that older workers (you become an older worker at 50) are becoming more prevalent in the workforce. The review has also shown that fewer new workers are joining the labour force and that many older workers retire early. Apart from confirming the obvious, the work has also revealed some other interesting information about health and life expectancy trends and the performance of older workers. In terms of performance at work and the potential of age to effect accident and injury rates the information makes interesting reading. The main points from the review are summarised here.

In 2007 there were 20.7 million people 50 years or older in the UK. This is a 50% increase on 1951 and the growth is projected to continue. Similarly, the percentage of people employed in 2009 of Statutory Pension Age (SPA) has increased from 8% to 12%. Life expectancy has risen and is projected to continue rising. With a continued active and healthy lifestyle, men aged 65 can expect to live in good or fairly good health for a further 12.8 years and women for a further 14.5 years. Common issues such as high blood pressure have shown a reduction in most age groups in the past few years and the proportion of people with cardiovascular diseases has remained stable. However, diabetes in adults almost doubled between 1994 and 2006.

There is no consistent evidence that older workers are generally less productive than younger workers. Various studies have not established a relationship between decreased job performance and increasing age and conclude that job performance is generally the same across all age groups. When abilities match job requirements and when experience is taken into account, there is little difference between the performance of older and younger workers.

Performance does not necessarily decline with age because most jobs do not require employees to work at full capacity. Knowledge and experience have been found to compensate for age-related declines in a wide range of fields and it is suggested that practice and skills and professional expertise, developed over many years of practice and experience, can compensate for any potential decline in performance. There is clear evidence that other aspects of performance such as good timekeeping, helping co-workers, better anger management and people skills increase with age. Some studies have shown that older workers perform better in terms of accuracy and consistency of output. 

There is strong evidence that work is generally good for physical and mental health as well as well¬being for people of all age groups. Not being in work is also associated with poor physical and mental health and well-being. Although there is consistent evidence that ageing does bring an increase in the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and cardiovascular disease this cannot always be linked to an associated decline in job performance. The evidence suggests that age-related changes in ill health generally do not result in impairment or incapacity and have a minimal affect on productivity. 

The increase in the prevalence of some common health problems and MSDs with age is part of the normal ageing process and happens to people whether they are working or not. There is no conclusive evidence that age by itself is a risk factor for work-related MSDs or ill health. In other words, it is not the age of the worker that is the issue, but that the work or workplace is demanding more of a worker than the worker is capable of giving. Other factors such as work demands, psychosocial and socioeconomic factors may have a greater influence on the risk of developing work-related ill health than age. 

For mental health problems the findings generally suggest that the prevalence of depression decreases with increasing age. Symptoms of work-related stress and burnout appear to increase with age but peek at 50-55 years old and then decrease with older age. Women may be more likely to report work-related stress than men possibly due to the demands of their work, having multiple roles outside work and generally being more ready to admit to stress. 

The evidence is that cognitive performance does not usually show any marked decrease until after the age of 70; cognitive skills such as intelligence, knowledge, language and complex problem solving are resistant to age-related declines. They are all likely to increase with age until 60. There is some laboratory based evidence to support the theory that some specific cognitive abilities decline with age; these include working memory, reasoning, attention and processing speed. But the evidence is also that where such decline does occur the performance of tasks is unlikely to be affected because the individual is able to compensate for these declines with experience, education, high motivation, better judgement and job knowledge. 

It is often said that older workers won’t accept and cannot adapt to change. Research says that whilst older workers may be initially reluctant, or have difficulty adapting to workplace changes, there is no evidence to suggest that they are not capable of adaptation. The evidence suggests that part of the problem is that the speed of learning tends to slow with age and those introducing change do not take this into account. The training time and ease of learning for older workers may be improved if the training is tailored towards the learning styles of older adults such as self paced learning, learning with age peers, additional assistance from trainers and more practice time. With this approach there is strong evidence that older workers can achieve a good standard in learning and performing new skills. 

Sickness absence is a complex issue. It is influenced by a number of different factors including personal, social and organisational issues. It can be measured by both frequency and duration of absence. Generally the figures show that women have more sickness absence than men and that sickness absence rates are higher in the public service than in the private sector. Official figures show that workers under the age of 35 have a higher rate of sickness absence (2.6%) than older workers (2.4%). However, these figures only consider frequency of sickness absence and not duration. Some studies suggest that older workers have less short-term sickness absence than younger workers but may take more long-term sickness absence than younger workers. Overall, the balance of the evidence is that older workers do not have a greater sickness absence pattern than younger workers. 

There is no convincing evidence that older workers have an increased risk of occupational accidents than younger workers. The evidence suggests two patterns in the relationship between age and occupational accidents. Firstly, that older workers are generally less likely than younger workers to have occupational accidents, and secondly that accidents involving older workers are likely to result in more serious injuries, permanent disabilities or death than for younger workers. However, differing rates of non¬fatal injury between older and younger workers can be largely explained by industry and occupational profiles of the working populations in those groups. When workplace injury rates are adjusted for other factors such as occupation, age was found not to have a statistically significant influence on the risk of workplace injury. 

There is some evidence to suggest that older workers may experience more slips, trips and falls than younger workers. The recovery period following an injury may be longer for older workers but the evidence is not consistent. Women workers have a substantially lower rate of injuries than men and this rate does not appear to increase with age.

Analysis of accident and injury data suggests that irrespective of age workers in a job for less than four months and part-time workers of all ages are at the highest risk of work-related reportable injuries. 

To conclude, this HSE review suggests that older workers do not need to be treated any differently to younger workers as long as employers are aware that there may be a reduction in some physical and mental capabilities with age. These will be unique to each individual but can be identified. They can be accommodated in quite small changes to their working environment, practices and procedures.

For more information on the issue of dealing with ageing employees, please contact our Advice Line today on 0844 892 2772.