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Older woman seated at computer.
Older woman seated at computer.

Older women's health in the workplace

With more women working for longer, it's crucial that employers are able to support the health needs of their older women workers.

Our Evidence Officer, Nayyara Tabassum, discusses the health conditions that can affect older women in the workplace, and how employers and the government can support them. 

With a growing number of women in the workforce, and the age-profile of the UK’s employees shifting, older women’s health in the workplace is becoming an increasingly important issue for employers. Demographic changes in the labour market and policy reforms suggest older women’s health in the workplace is going to continue to remain an important healthy workplace topic for employers, government and policymakers – and yet it’s still a vastly overlooked issue.

Gender shift in the ageing workforce

With life expectancy rising, the number of working age over 50s is increasing - with nearly one in five in the UK population estimated to be over 65 by 2030. And while the proportion of older men in work has remained fairly steady, the proportion of women over 50 in the labour market has increased from just 40% in 1990 to nearly 50% by 2004, and is continuing to rise.

This shift has also seen changes in UK government policy, such as the reform of women’s pensions, which has significant implications for women’s financial security, health and wellbeing in later life.

Mental health conditions alone cost billions to the UK economy.
The 3 M’s: common health conditions faced by older women

Poor health can disrupt the work cycle. Mental health conditions alone cost billions to the UK economy. Three common health conditions that older women in the workforce face are:

Mental Health

Stress, anxiety and depression are the common conditions reported by women in the workplace. Contributors to workplace stress include caring responsibilities for grandchildren and older dependants, and ageist and sexist perceptions in the workplace.

Musculoskeletal health

Musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions, such as injury or damage of the joints in the limbs or back, are a health risk for older women. Research shows that risks of accidental injury due to falling, tripping or slipping at work increase with age for women. This is particularly relevant for women engaged in manual work. Often, ergonomic designs of workstations and equipment in the workplace are designed for men and do not adequately support women.

Menopause

There are around 4.3 million women aged 50 years and over in the UK workforce. Symptoms of menopause such as hot flushes or heart palpitations during working hours can create difficult working conditions for women. Research by the Government Equalities Office found that unsympathetic colleagues and managers often prevent women from talking about the difficulties they are facing or getting support from colleagues.

It’s vital that employers are aware of the needs their employees might have, and are committed to accommodating them.
Recommendations

These conditions can have a serious and damaging impact on women in the workplace – but they don’t have to. Here are three recommendations for mitigating their impact.

  • Awareness Drive – An awareness-raising programme by the government would play a huge role in promoting a positive understanding of the links between health and work among employers, healthcare professionals and the general public. The government should do more to promote access to occupational health support, both via the NHS and in the workplace, for example through a right to return to work after a health-related absence.
  • Workplace Wellbeing Programmes – Employers can promote healthy ageing among their workforce by running more wellbeing programmes, making wellbeing an organisational priority among senior leaders, and collecting continuous feedback from employees to improve these initiatives. All employees should have access to occupational health and wellbeing support, as well as appropriate physical adjustments and equipment.
  • Flexible Working Policy – Employers should offer flexible working as the default, and encourage employees to make use of these options. If all employees choose to work flexibly, this helps tackle the stigma sometimes associated with taking time off for health reasons and the negative attitudes that persist around health and wellbeing conditions.

With a steadily increasing number of older women in the workforce, we need to have a better understanding of health and wellbeing conditions faced by older women and how these conditions can affect people at work. There are plenty of workplace health and wellbeing interventions that can be made to help older women manage their health conditions – it’s vital that employers are aware of the needs their employees might have, and are committed to accommodating them. Making our workplaces age-friendly is crucial in adapting to our shifting demographics, and we must ensure that health and wellbeing needs of older women at work are considered in designing age-friendly workplaces.

Menopause affects half of all workers – so why don’t we talk about it?

Read more
Nayyara
Evidence Officer