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The need for older workers

The Bank of England has predicted a five-quarter UK recession from the end of 2022, and Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures published last week suggest that the economy is already in retreat.  Yet despite this economic gloom, the candidate shortage in the employment market continues.

ONS employment data published this week shows just a small (0.1%) uplift in the unemployment rate, but also indicates that the numbers employed continues to increase.  Growth in employment during a period an economic downturn is unusual, and highlights a number of other challenges faced by British business in recent years.

Why the shortage?

Firstly, there has been the impact of Brexit.

Since the 2016 referendum many workers from the European Union (EU) have chosen to leave the UK to continue working within the EU.  The exodus was probably accelerated by the arrival of Covid-19, when many more will have felt compelled to return to the support networks of their friends and family.  The pandemic may have also deterred or prevented non-EU workers from travelling to the UK to backfill these new vacancies.

The pandemic also played a part in other ways.  Many older workers have not returned to the employment market after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, with at least some taking early retirement.  Others may not be able to return, particularly those suffering with Long Covid (ONS figures suggest that more than 400,000 people in the UK have experienced Long Covid for two years or longer) or those who have become carers for family members.

The above factors have all combined to generate a perfect storm of candidate-shortages.  This is a problem that few employers need as they seek to navigate some exceedingly difficult economic waters in the months ahead.

Will older workers return?

Yet that difficult economic backdrop – and in particular the very real cost of living crisis – might be about to spark a return of older workers to the employment market, as evidenced by this story from the ITV News website earlier this week.  Another story highlighted the call from Dame Sharon White – the John Lewis boss – for the over 50s to return to the workplace too.

It is of course true that many such workers might be returning through financial necessity rather than desire to recommence their career.  Yet employers should welcome this unexpected influx of potential candidates who have much needed experience and useful skills.  The next step in the process is to ensure that employers get the very best out of this returning pool of employment talent.

Different needs

To achieve this employers should recognise that older workers sometimes face different challenges to their younger colleagues.  A 2018 House of Commons report (entitled Older People and Employment) highlighted several significant issues, with two key concerns being;

“health conditions and caring responsibilities are two of the biggest factors that result in people leaving the labour market early, or that prevent them from returning.”

It follows that employers who seek to support workers with these two issues will be best placed to benefit from the skills and goodwill of older staff in the difficult months ahead.

The challenges

Of course, the period since the 2018 report has seen significant changes in the workplace, with flexible working now far more accessible.  This will be a useful tool to attract and retain older workers, and particularly those who also have caring duties to consider.

The other challenge – health – is perhaps a little trickier.  Older workers are more likely to have at least one long-term health condition (LTC), and whilst such conditions can often be controlled via changes in lifestyle and/or medication, LTCs can still harm productivity and can lead to lengthy absence too.  Indeed, a striking sentence from the 2018 report is this:

 “While older workers tend to have fewer instances of sick leave than younger people, when they are off work it tends to be for longer periods”

 Simply put, when an older worker is off ill the problem is likely to be both genuine and potentially more serious.  It follows that such employees are likely to benefit from better health and wellbeing support to ensure rapid treatment, a full return to health, and a quick return to the workplace.

Deploy wellbeing solutions

It is therefore apparent that employers need to ensure practical support is readily available to all their older workers.

Tools that Partners& would particularly encourage all good employers to offer to their older workforce in the difficult months ahead include:

  • A good quality Employee Assistance Plan (EAP)
  • 24/7 remote access to a General Practitioner
  • Access to private healthcare treatments (including dental)
  • Early intervention services (often provided free alongside Group Income Protection policies)

The reality is that the return of some older workers can help employers navigate their way through the candidate shortages in the months and years ahead.  It follows that it is simply good business sense to make sure these workers are able to remain fit, healthy, and (of course) productive.