What does the rise in state pension age mean for employers’ healthcare strategies?

Need to know

  • Health risk increases with age, with 44% of people aged 50-64 having at least one long-term health condition such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer.
  • As well as preventing health problems, a health and wellbeing programme can slow and stop the onset of many conditions.
  • Policies such as flexible working, sabbaticals, and job design can support the health and lifestyle of older workers.

Bringing forward the rise in the state pension age means that more of us will be staying in employment for longer. But, as many health risks increase with age, employers need to factor the older workforce into their healthcare strategies.

While the government move to bring forward the rise in pension age of 68 to 2037 and 2039, rather than 2044, will directly affect six million people, working longer is already a well-established trend. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions report, Fuller Working Lives, which was published in February 2017, show that 9.8 million people aged 50 plus were in employment in 2016, nearly a third more than the 7.6 million employed 10 years earlier.

And many see this as a positive. Dr Wolfgang Seidl, workplace health consulting leader UK and Europe at Mercer, says: “The more diverse the workforce the better. It brings more experience into the workforce and it’s good for business.”

Health challenges

But it can bring some challenges too, with the risk of many health conditions increasing with age. These include cardiovascular problems, type 2 diabetes, cancer, arthritis, respiratory diseases and neurological disorders. Patrick Thomson, senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, says: “Nearly half (44%) of 50-64 year olds have at least one long-term health condition, [according to the Office for National Statistics’ Annual population survey July 2015-June 2016, published in September 2016]. These can range in severity but can often be a driver for leaving work.”

As people work for longer, the number of workers with dementia will also increase. The Dementia UK report update, published in November 2014 by the Alzheimer’s Society, found that two in 100 people aged 65 to 69 have dementia, with this rising to one in five for those aged 85 to 89.

There can be challenges with mental and emotional health too. Bereavement can be more common and caring responsibilities are more likely to arise. Chris Minett, managing director at Mercer AgeingWorks, says: “One in nine employees are carers now [according to 2011 Census figures] and this will increase to one in six in the next 10 years. Juggling the two roles can be very stressful, with carers often feeling guilty.”

Supporting older workers

Given the range of conditions, providing health and wellbeing support to older employees is important. Health insurance products are available, although there can be limitations.

Group risk products such as income protection and life insurance have an exemption from the default retirement age legislation so only have to pay benefits until state pension age. Steve Bridger, managing director of group protection at Aviva, says: “Employers need to include this end date in their contracts. Otherwise, they could face a huge liability if an employee is unable to work and claims they would have worked until they were 90.”

Similarly, private medical insurance can become prohibitively expensive for older employees, as well as excluding cover for chronic conditions such as diabetes. Offering more restricted products such as a health cash plan or Aviva’s Essentials, for example, which cover cancer or physiotherapy, may be an option. “These are more affordable and target two conditions that become more common among older people,” adds Bridger. “For example, the cancer product includes a £100,000 cancer drug fund.”

As well as using health insurance products to fix problems, a focus on prevention is also sensible. “Providing health information and support can be beneficial even where an employee has already developed a condition,” says Seidl. “Helping employees to manage their weight, exercise and eat the right food can slow and even stop the onset of conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Exercise can even help prevent dementia.”

Mental and emotional health support

Employers can face different challenges supporting employees’ emotional and mental health. While an employee assistance programme (EAP) can help with support for issues such as bereavement and depression, additional resources may also be necessary.

For example, dementia needs to be approached with sensitivity, says Rachael Saunders, director for age at work at Business in the Community (BITC). “There’s no cure so it’s a matter of managing decline,” she adds. “As well as signposting emotional support, getting an employee’s permission to speak to colleagues about it can help.”

Dementia awareness training is another useful tool. This gives employees a better understanding of the condition but also enables them to spot the early signs so appropriate support can be accessed.

The growing number of carers in the workplace also need support. For example, the Mercer AgeingWorks platform contains plenty of practical information to help people arranging care. Minett says: “People don’t know where to look when a friend or relative needs care. Having these resources can make a huge difference.”

A supportive culture

Alongside offering a range of products, organisations can support these older employees through their culture. Thomson says: “Having age-friendly policies and practices in place will help. If employees see what’s available, and how it’s used, they will be much more likely to ask for help. This helps to create the right culture.”

As well as highlighting all the support available, this can also promote policies such as flexible working and sabbaticals. These are practical measures that help employees stay in the workforce by enabling them to adapt their work around health and lifestyle demands.

Similarly, as the workforce ages, job design also needs to become part of an organisation’s healthcare strategy. “If someone has a particularly physical job, [employers could have] some flexibility around what they do as they get older,” says Saunders. “I’ve seen businesses move joiners into the call centre when the work became too physically demanding for them. This enabled them to carry on working, with their knowledge benefitting the [employer] and its customers.”

While many employers are just beginning to grapple with the health and wellbeing challenges an ageing workforce brings, this needs to change, says Minett. “We need to normalise the conversation around older people in the workplace in exactly the same way we’ve accepted that many employees have children,” he explains. “There needs to be cultural change.”