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In praise of older workers

In praise of older workers


Dr Karen McDonnell, our Head of Global Relations, discusses the benefits of having older workers and the considerations employers should make to ensure they remain safe and healthy.

Workplaces around the world can make a valuable contribution to the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing. It is widely recognised that ‘good’ work is good for you, and this message is relevant to workers at all stages of their working lives. Good work helps maintain functional capacity, which means that a person’s ability to do their daily tasks and activities remains optimal as they get older. 

Across the world, people are now living longer. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in six people in the world will be aged 60 years or over by 2030, reaching a total of 1.4 billion.

By 2050, the world’s population of people aged 60 years and older is predicted to rise to 2.1 billion. The number of people aged 80 years or older is expected to triple between 2020 and 2050 to reach 426 million.

In its 2021 report on ageism, WHO found that 50 per cent of people were ageist against older people, saying: “Despite the many contributions of older people to society and their wide diversity, negative attitudes about older people are common across societies and are seldom challenged.”

Age-related discrimination in the workplace can be direct (for instance an employer not recruiting or promoting someone on the basis of their age), indirect (when an organisation has a particular way of working that applies to everyone but puts people at a disadvantage because of their age), harassment (unwanted behaviour relating to age that violates someone’s dignity or creates an offensive environment for them) or victimisation (treating someone unfairly because they’ve complained about discrimination or harassment).

Looking after workers and ensuring their health and safety needs are met, no matter their age, puts people at the heart of business. These needs are constant in the risk assessment process and create workplace disciplines that also have benefits beyond it.

Within a European context it is predicted that by 2030, workers aged over 55 are expected to make up 30 per cent or more of the total workforce in many EU countries. This heralds a new era for our workplaces where experience helps older workers make the right health and safety-related choices and where intergenerational working supports younger workers and provides the opportunity for them to learn from older workers’ “lived experience”.

It’s therefore time to pause, reflect and reset your thinking about older workers.

Here are five issues to think about:

  1. Keep on top of risk assessment

The work may not change over time but workers’ physical capacity will. Therefore, ensuring that you undertake a person-centered decision-making approach is an essential part of the risk assessment process. Think about muscles, bones and joints, heart and lung function, eyes, ears and how you encourage workers to tell you when they are experiencing problems. And when they do, make sure you review the risk assessment.

  1. Embrace technological advances

Technology can remove arduous elements from work. And if technology can take the strain, consult with workers on its implementation and selection. Then provide information and training on its use, all of which will result in happier, healthier workers – which is a real benefit to the organisation and enables people to live life to its fullest.

  1. IT angst

The pandemic has been seismic in terms of a shift from face-to-face to virtual training worlds. The baby boomers of the 1960s have had a vastly different exposure to computer-based technology than Gen Z who have grown up with instant access to ‘the internet of things’. There are opportunities here to introduce intergenerational mentoring and to provide scalable time frames for online learning to avoid workers of all ages becoming overwhelmed. And whilst the pendulum may not swing back to face-to-face learning and communication for everyone, recognise that people more often enjoy learning in the same space together.

  1. Driving

The older we are, the more experience we have, and this is one of the reasons why older drivers tend to be safer and more considerate. However, our eyesight, physical condition and reaction times may not be as good as they once were, and we may develop age-related conditions, or be taking medications, that can affect our driving. Driving licences expire at 70 years of age and need to be renewed every three years afterwards. See for advice.

  1. Health conditions

Considering workers from a ‘whole person, whole life’ perspective is increasingly important as they grow older. Human factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis are issues that people ‘bring to work with them’. We need to create the right conditions for people to speak about these illnesses and support them to have a healthy working life. These conditions can be controlled, and reasonable person-centered adjustments can be made to help keep people in work.


The key ingredients for a sustainable working life need to be in place from the first to the last day of work; from induction, job specific training and HR involvement to highlighting the importance of rehabilitation and return-to-work policies and tackling age discrimination whenever it appears. Age should not be a barrier to a fulfilling working life, and decisions to leave work should be personal and not employer led.

An integrated management approach towards inclusivity and adopting a holistic approach to managing the risk to people, irrespective of their age, underpins both personal and organisational sustainability.

Older workers hold the key to organisational effectiveness, personal and corporate memory. Can you really afford to lose this incredibly important resource?

Laura Aucott

Dr Karen McDonnell is RoSPA's Head of Global Relations. A Past President of IOSH, Karen represents RoSPA on The Sleep Charity Advisory Board, the Council for Work and Health and the International Network of Safety and Health Practitioner Organisations.


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