Health screening: New plans for an older issue

If you read nothing else, read this . . .

• An ageing workforce will be a big issue for employers over the next few years.

• Screening can identify conditions at an early stage allowing early treatment.

• Screening for older workers should not be at the expense of that for younger staff.

With an increasingly older workforce, health screening will play a vital role in identifying problems at an early stage, but younger staff should not be overlooked

The abolition of the default retirement age this year, added to the shift from defined benefit (DB) to defined contribution (DC) pension schemes, has brought into focus how employers should manage what is likely to be an older workforce.

Sarah Moise, benefits manager at Schlumberger, says she is expecting to see a gradual shift. “While we have a DB pension fund, people will retire at about the same age as they do today,” she says. “But it may be less easy for those who have joined more recently and been offered a DC scheme. It will definitely have an impact in maybe 10 or 15 years’ time.”

One of the biggest issues for employers in the next few years will be how to manage the health of older workers, and whether to extend benefits such as private medical insurance (PMI) or income protection to those aged over 65. Chris Coyne, group head of reward at City and Guilds, says: “With improved technology and longevity of life, what is now the 60-65 age group is going to become the 65-70 age group, so we are going to see a big shift in terms of age profiles.

“Cancer Research recently said four out of 10 of us will suffer some form of cancer but more of us will survive it, so we will probably have a workforce that will get some significant illnesses and that will impact on healthcare premiums.”

Eleanor Smith, rewards and mobility manager at law firm Linklaters, manages healthcare provision across a wide age range. Until a few years ago, partners of the firm were entitled to benefits such as PMI for the rest of their lives, and even now are covered for five years post-retirement. But her experience may challenge some assumptions employers have about the cost of such cover. “I have some quite significantly older people on our healthcare provisions,” she says. “You would think that would mean a lot of high-cost claims because of all these elderly people, but that is not really true.

“One thing that has come over in the review I have done is that cancer is really no respecter of age groups. It is really quite striking. There is one person who is 75 who is in my top 10 or 15 cases, but there are also some pretty horrendous cancer treatments going on for people significantly younger. I am a lot less scared about the concept of managing something with a lot of people from a much higher age bracket.”

Pivotal role

With older workers, some medical conditions will inevitably be more prevalent than in other age groups, so health screening can play a pivotal role in helping employers spot the signs early on, allowing staff to be treated and managed effectively and absence kept to a minimum. This will be essential if having people in the workplace later in life is to work for employers.

Valerie Phillips, head of business at Randox Health Checks, says: “It is a fact of life that as people get older, levels of illness increase. But rather than thinking about the negative impact on medical insurance and the management and treatment of conditions, the emphasis should be on early diagnosis. Catching cancers early is why people are living through that but if you catch it too late, it will have a big impact on premiums.”

However, the focus on older workers should not be at the expense of screening younger ones, because identifying long-term conditions, such as diabetes, is vital for any age group. “It is a bit late to say that now you are over 50 we will screen you every year and twice a year if you are over 60,” says Phillips. “It is just as important to screen people in their 20s or 30s, so they can understand why they are well and how they can maintain it.”

But not all employers will have invested in screening programmes when staff were younger, so the more responsible organisations can end up picking up the pieces. Coyne says: “Employers might be inheriting workers who were not screened when they were 20 or 30 and have joined them when they are 50 or 60. Not everyone is with [an employer] for their whole career and not every organisation is as enlightened as we would like them to be. There is definitely a need to tailor an approach to specific age groups as well.”

But Linklaters’ Smith points out the role the NHS can play in screening for certain conditions as people get older and warns of the danger of duplication. “The NHS intervenes significantly once you get to 50 anyway because it is in its interest as well to manage an ageing population,” she says. “As an employer, I am struggling to see how you would need to change from a health screening perspective, beyond the fact that we do health screening programmes at different frequencies depending on [employees’] age category, which is just common sense.”

Changing needs

There are already examples of how employers can accommodate older staff by demonstrating a willingness to fit in around their changing needs. Kevin Trott, colleague relations and engagement team leader at Asda, says: “We have not really ever had a default retirement age in place, so it is pretty much business as usual for us.

“With a lot of our roles, we can handle younger employees right through to older employees quite easily, with a few adjustments in terms of flexibility. For us, it is really easy and hopefully we will continue to see the benefits of having that diverse workforce in the future.”

Trott says relatively simple initiatives, such as allowing employees to take extended, unpaid leave when they are ill, is one way of helping older workers, as is offering more flexibility around working hours.

Such initiatives are not unique to Asda. In a previous role in the retail sector, Smith recalls putting in place an arrangement that allowed staff to take a whole part of the year off, which many older workers would use to travel to places such as Spain for the winter months. “That was recognising that once people get past a certain age, they may not want to completely retire but may want to balance the amount of time they are actually in work,” she says.

Experienced talent

An ageing workforce is likely to raise the profile of initiatives such as health screening and wellness programmes over the coming years, particularly as employers compete to attract experienced talent as the economy recovers. Coyne adds: “There has been a lot of attention on pensions in the light of the abolition of the default retirement age, but actually we should be paying just as much attention to the whole health and wellness issue. Retailers have blazed a trail for older workers, but there are other industries with younger business models.

“The demographics prove that is not going to be the case any longer. Employers have to hang on to older workers because that is where their knowledge will be and if they do not, they will lose their competitive edge. The whole approach to wellbeing needs to be an exercise now rather than waiting until they have 50% of the employee population aged over 60.”

Read more from the health screening roundtable discussion