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HR must do more to help older workers, government inquiry is told

25 Jan 2018 By Marianne Calnan

Flexible working, counselling and support for SMEs will help arrest decline in workforce participation

Organisations must do more to retain and promote older workers, experts told an official government inquiry into the topic yesterday (24 January).

During a women and equalities committee oral evidence session on the role of older people in the workplace, the CIPD was among a range of organisations offering guidance and raising concerns about the ageing workforce, and employers’ role in preparing for it. 

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, urged employers to “invest in the support of older workers just as they would anyone else in an organisation”, adding that it was a significant challenge to retain employees over 50. He called for HR and business leaders to work together to ensure training opportunities for older workers are available.

The recruitment and reskilling of older workers would become increasingly important, the session – convened as part of the committee’s older people and employment inquiry – was told.

Research from the International Longevity Centre showed the difference between the employment rate for 53-year-olds and 67-year-olds was 64 per cent. Willmott said the key drivers were health and caring responsibilities: older workers were often looking after children, parents or partners, which put them under significant pressure.

Employees needed access to wellbeing and counselling services to address this problem. Only around 40 per cent of employers offer occupational health services, which Willmott said were vital to support workers of all ages. “Any health condition for anyone can be a sensitive and difficult issue, and something employees may not be confident enough to disclose,” he said.

Similarly, there was a lack of awareness of the Fit for Work service, and smaller employers in particular don’t know it existed even before the referral and assessment component was discontinued.

Another solution, the uptake of flexible working, had broadly plateaued over the last 15 years despite a slight increase in part-time working. Overall, employees’ ability to access flexi-time, job shares and home working had not really increased, added Wilmott. “We need to unlock the potential of flexible working and make it more inclusive.”

Ruby Peacock, deputy head of public affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), highlighted the lack of accessible training for smaller organisations to support older workers – often because of a lack of resources and funding. 

She urged the government to make small business owners “part of the conversation” around managing older employees. Employers and line managers need to take the lead because of how well they know their staff and “what makes them tick”.

The FSB’s members’ views on flexible working are changing and younger business owners are much more open to thinking about job design and flexibility from the outset, said Peacock. Flexibility is more important to younger people, and that is what they want to offer their staff too.

Willmott agreed that there needed to be more focus from the government on supporting small companies when it comes to HR issues. “Until small employers get the basic people management aspects in place, they will not engage in valued-added aspects,” he said. 

Willmott shared BT’s approach to occupational health as an option offered to its workforce as “day one” help as and when employees need it, which he said is beneficial to both employees’ health and business’s bottom lines. 

The government’s Fit for Work service was initially established in January 2015 as a free, GP-led service, before being extended to allow employers to refer staff in September 2015. It offered impartial advice to employers, and occupational health assessments for employees who were off ill for four or more weeks – aiming to reduce the bill for long-term sickness by getting individuals back to work as early as possible.

However, it will be scrapped this year after being plagued by poor take-up and complaints from employers that felt it either replicated their own occupational health support for employees or was too poorly understood to have a significant impact on long-term illness. 

Willmott told the committee that many smaller employers did not know of its existence and said the government should have “stuck with the scheme for a longer period of time”, as a decade was required to start getting traction for a service of this nature. 

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