How to support over 50s in the workforce

Alice Dawson explores the health issues affecting older workers and calls on the government to support this group in continuing with or returning to work

SDI Productions/Getty Images

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increasing number of over 50s who are economically inactive due to health issues, raising significant concerns about the relationship between older employee’s health and their work lives.

A lot of attention has rightly been put on the role of mental illness, though typically this analysis tends to focus on young people. Our recent report, Understanding ‘Early Exiters’, published in collaboration with the Physiological Society and Centre for Ageing Better, shows that actually this issue is not restricted to young workers and that for employers to stem the tide of over 50s leaving work, they must not overlook the mental health of their older employees too.

What our research found was that mental health issues are the most common health problem impacting older people’s work lives. We commissioned a YouGov poll of over 2,000 over 50s in the UK which found that 17 per cent of 50-54, 55-59 year olds, and 60-64 year olds cited “stress, anxiety and depression” as a reason for either leaving work entirely or working fewer hours.

In response to this growing crisis, we’re calling on the UK government to implement the first ever Ageing Workforce Strategy to support older workers with health conditions to continue working and return to work, and to help to prevent age-related decline in ill-health. This would include:

  • Integrating policies that promote mental health and wellbeing into wider company policies.

  • Introducing mandatory training for line managers that will give them the confidence and knowledge they need to more proactively support older workers, including detailed guidance on tackling ableism and ageism.

  • Offering the option of flexible working patterns to employees from day one so that older people with mental health issues are able to adopt a working pattern that meets their needs.

As has been acknowledged by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, being employed can provide a range of psychosocial benefits, including a sense of social identity and status; social contacts; a means of structuring and occupying their time; and a sense of personal achievement. It’s not surprising then that some people’s mental health and wellbeing can suffer as a result of not being in work. For some of the over 50s we spoke to during our research, the loss of socialisation opportunities had led to feelings of loneliness, isolation and a loss of purpose.

However, not all employees are in ‘good work’, as typically characterised by factors like flexibility, security and inclusive workplace cultures. Some of the over 50s we spoke to described situations which involved unsupportive line management, difficult work relationships and work that caused a significant degree of stress or an ageist or ableist work environment.

Such poor quality work and work environments can contribute to employees developing mental health issues, like stress or low mood, that negatively impacts their work lives and can also make it extremely challenging for those with pre-existing mental health conditions to stay in work. One over 50 we spoke to, who had depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, left work due to grappling with an increasing workload and a decline in occupational health support provided by his employer.

If employers are to help older people stay in work, mental health support must be made a priority. But that’s going to require a totally new approach. Simply responding to need will not do. We need to see employers working towards preventing ill mental health by creating a culture in which employees proactively taking care of their mental wellbeing is the norm.

Alice Dawson is a researcher at Demos and co-author of Understanding 'Early Exiters: The Case for a Healthy Ageing Workforce Strategy