10 million people in the UK, or one in six, are over 65 years old. This number is increasing, with the government predicting that there will be 19 million people over 65 by 2050 – or one in four.
As this number increases, more and more older people will make up the UK’s workforce. In 2008, there were 3.2 people of working age for every person over 65. This ratio is predicted to fall to 2.8 by 2033, meaning that the ageing workforce is only going to get larger.
Many employers see an older workforce as a benefit to their organisations, bringing years of experience, expertise and skills to a role. However, the growth in the UK’s ageing workforce may bring challenges for employers too, which they should be aware of and be ready to respond to.
One of these challenges is work-related musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs. MSDs are conditions that can affect someone’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and are often caused by over-exertion or repetitive motion. MSDs can often be serious enough to prevent people from working – they are actually one of the most common reasons for people taking long-term sickness absence in the UK.
Older people can be more susceptible to work-related MSDs, for a number of reasons. As we age, we become less able to put stress on our muscles without risking injury, meaning that lifting heavy objects or participating in strenuous activities can become more difficult. We also become more susceptible to our bones breaking as we get older, and we get tired more easily. All these changes can mean that an older employee is more at risk of developing an MSD than a younger employee.
This clearly has health and safety implications for workplaces, meaning that employers need to be aware of the potential risks and develop strategies to help prevent these. Employers can carry out a risk assessment on their workplace to identify any potential risks.
Some changes which employers can make to help accommodate ageing staff members who may be more susceptible to MSDs are fairly straightforward, such as investing in more ergonomically-friendly workstations, or adjusting the layout of the workplace to reduce strain on older workers.
However, some changes may present more of a challenge than simply buying some new equipment. As staff get older, it may mean that their job roles need to change, especially when considering MSDs. For example, if an older worker is using manual tools regularly, they may be more at risk of developing an MSD such as back pain, and as such this activity may need to be reduced or eliminated entirely from their job role.
Of course, the fitness of older workers can differ between people – some older people may have less difficulty continuing in certain job roles than others, and as such each older worker should be treated on a case-by-case basis. When an older employee does need an adjustment in their job role, this may be a challenge for employers, but as the number of older people in the workforce is only set to increase, this is an important step that should not be overlooked.
If you have an employee on long-term sickness absence due to an MSD, you can refer them to Fit for Work by visiting fitforwork.org/employer and clicking on ‘refer an employee’, or phone 0800 032 6235 (0800 019 2211 for those in Scotland). Employers and employees can also visit the Fit for Work Advice Hub or phone the advice line for advice on dealing with MSDs.