Occupational Health Needs of Older Workers within the NHS

By Arnold, Helen; Edgar, Jen | The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Occupational Health Needs of Older Workers within the NHS


Arnold, Helen, Edgar, Jen, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health


It is well documented that the average age of the global population is increasing.1-3 By 2050 it is predicted that one out of five will be 60 years or older, compared to one out often now.1 In the last ten years within the UK there has been a greater emphasis on trying to prevent people over the age of 50 leaving the workforce by the use of various initiatives such as the Age Positive Campaign and 'new deal 50-plus'. However despite the increase in the availability of potential workers, the number of people over 50 and who are working is actually falling. Significantly, a large study by Humphrey et al.4 established that approximately 37% of workers had been forced to retire or leave a job because of ill health or disability.

This has caused great concern, and in 2004 the House of Lords5 advised that:

'the government, employer and labour organisations should collect information and disseminate "best practice" guidelines on ways in which jobs and workplaces can be redesigned to facilitate the employment of older workers who have activity-limiting health status.'

The National Health Service (NHS) is Europe's largest organization with over one million employees6 and statistics show that the average age of the worker within this organization may actually be rising quicker than the general population.7-9 It is essential then that the NHS strongly considers the impact of these demographic changes and implements health promotion strategies that protect the health of the older worker, because otherwise an already stretched service may struggle further.

Many authors advocate that older workers do not need to be singled out as a specific group in relation to the promotion of their health needs as their performance at work does not deteriorate with age and that age-related changes are therefore irrelevant.4,10 However the World Health Organisation (WHO)3 recognize that older workers' 'work capacity is often incompatible with work demands, which can lead to stress, health problems and high mortality'.

The WHO further suggests that the workplace must be assessed and adjusted to take account of age-related changes, such as the loss of vision, hearing and muscle strength.

There is much evidence to suggest that the risk of occupational ill health may increase as workers age3, 11, 12 and such occurrences affect workers' health outside work. This may result in possible financial and physical consequences not only to the worker, but to society as a whole. The health needs of the older worker should therefore be high on the health promotion agenda at present. It appears that outside the workplace much is being done, for example, the use of the flu vaccine - although this is aimed primarily at those over the age of 65 and 'at-risk' groups. However, anecdotal reports suggest that within the NHS the occupational health provision for older workers seems to vary widely with many occupational health advisers feeling that workers are dealt with only once the problem has arisen. Many researchers13-15 believe that this balance should be re-addressed and that long-term health needs should be promoted earlier in life in order to protect workers when they become more vulnerable through increasing age. …

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