Enticing older people back to work
By Homa Wilson on 18 September 2023
This year the UK government launched its ‘returnerships’ initiative. Its aim is to encourage older people back to work. According to government figures, there are currently 3.5 million over 50’s who are not part of the UK workforce.
Decline of older people in the UK workforce
Covid-19 drove older people out of the workplace. For some, this was because of discrimination (a significant number were furloughed and then made redundant), whilst others decided to retire early to focus on pursuing other interests.
The absence of this significant part of the workforce represents a huge loss in tax revenue and the government is very keen for employers to actively engage in hiring and retaining older workers.
There is no doubt that older workers bring with them unique skills and a wealth of experience, but there are barriers preventing their re-entry to the workforce. It is important for businesses to understand what those barriers are and adopt appropriate recruitment and retention initiatives to help overcome them.
Barriers preventing a return to work
Older people report being put off by recruitment practices that seem to favour younger workers as well as by ageism in the workplace. Ageism can take many forms; including making age based stereotypical assumptions about an individual’s ability or commitment to the job.
They also report feeling undervalued, facing barriers to their progression and lack of investment in their career development.
This is supported by the UK employment tribunal statistics, which show a significant rise in age discrimination claims from older workers. Between March 2020 to March 2021 15,336 age discrimination claims were submitted – that’s six times more than in the previous year.
Whilst employers have made concerted efforts to tackle inequality on grounds of race, gender and disability, many believe that employers have failed to show the same commitment to addressing age discrimination. Often, within organisations there is a stark absence of D&I initiatives addressing age discrimination, this gives rise to the feeling that age discrimination is socially acceptable.
Considerations when hiring and promoting older staff
Older workers can be put off from applying for roles due to age-biased language in the application process. Therefore, it is important to avoid using language that could be exclusionary, such as, stating that you are seeking ‘recent graduates’ or ‘energetic and lively staff’.
Another important issue to address is how older workers are perceived. This requires the business to first acknowledge that those recruiting may, whether consciously or not, make stereotypical assumptions about the ability, commitment, and drive of older workers and that such assumptions will make them less inclined to want to hire or invest in training and developing older staff.
To address this, it is important to ensure that hiring managers are given appropriate unconscious bias training. The training should help them to understand the legal position, including, what can amount to discrimination, ensuring they avoid age bias in the language they use – whether during the recruitment process or generally in the workplace.
Making assumptions about an individuals ability based on age and assumptions about their health can give rise to discrimination claims. But employers also need to deal with the reality, which is that health conditions can increase as people get older. For example, the Fawcett Society’s report, ‘Menopause and the Workplace’ found that 1 in 10 women had quit their jobs because of symptoms of the menopause.
Businesses should be proactive in taking a nuanced and sensitive approach to the needs of older staff. This involves considering the health issues they are likely to face and taking steps to accommodate them. This can include taking a flexible approach to working hours, place of work and making adjustments to the role.
The adjustments required to keep a particular employee in work will differ depending on the needs of that individual. This is why it is advisable for the employer to begin by having a conversation with the employee, in order to understand their needs. Some may be deterred from returning to work due to caring responsibilities (such as for grandchildren), others may be put off by the commute to work – once the employer understands the barriers facing the employee, it can offer appropriate solutions.
Offering appropriate support
In December 2021 the UK Office for National Statistics published data identifying that stress was the second most common reason for over 50’s leaving work, with retirement being the first.
Returning to work after a hiatus can be daunting. To entice people back, employees need to feel reassured that they will be supported. One way to do this is by offering training which focuses on building skills and confidence. When advertising roles, employers should explicitly state that support and training will be provided.
The UK government’s ‘returnership’ initiative also makes some good suggestions to assist a smooth transition back to work. This includes providing: tailored guidance and support; ‘skills refresher’ courses; mentoring schemes for returners; and regular training sessions.
When supporting an employee back to work, the employer should have regular check-ins to understand how they are settling in, what, if any, additional support or adjustments they may require.
Another obvious enticement for older workers is the offer of good medical benefits.
Avoiding age discrimination
In an effort to encourage older people back to work, businesses will need to tread carefully to ensure their actions do not give rise to discrimination claims, particularly from younger employees.
Age discrimination occurs when someone is unfairly disadvantaged for reasons relating to their age, which cannot be objectively justified. This could mean that policies and practices that are seen to benefit older workers may exclude or disadvantage younger workers. If so, the business could face claims for discrimination.
Businesses can minimise the likelihood of such claims by using age neutral language when recruiting, ensuring flexible working arrangements and training opportunities are made available to all, irrespective of age. It’s always best to seek legal advice before embarking on a recruitment drive focused on a particular group.
Older workers can be a huge asset to businesses. Not only can their wealth of skills and experience benefit the rest of the workforce, they also tend to stay in jobs longer compared to younger workers, and as such, minimise the disruption and costs associated with high staff turnover.
Many businesses are currently experiencing skills shortages, it makes good business sense to have a plan of action designed to not only encourage older workers back to work but to also retain them.
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