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Man in workshop

Tackling the disability employment gap 

“I was taken aback when my back went out. It was the first time I ever thought about getting old – for me the good life is having a job again.”

As this quote from our Later Life in 2015 research shows, work, health and ageing all interact. If people with health problems aren’t supported to stay in work, it can dramatically affect their chance of enjoying a good later life.

While poor health is not inevitable at any age, the older you are, the more likely you are to have one or more long-term health conditions. Nearly half of all people aged 50-64 have a long-term condition, compared to only one in four at 24-49.

There’s also evidence that older workers are treated differently to younger people when they do develop health problems. Almost half of the 3.7 million disabled people not in work are aged 50 to 64. Most disabled people aged 16-49 are in work, while most disabled people aged 50-64 are not. Despite the many benefits that good quality work can bring, less than half of people are working the year before they reach State Pension Age, with health being the single biggest reason for early exit.

Sometimes work itself can be a factor in causing or exacerbating a health problem. For example, ill health is the major reason that men aged 50-64 leave work in the construction sector – more than retirement and redundancy combined. And this isn’t only physical – job insecurity and stress at work are major causes of mental health problems too.

The government has set out an aim to halve the ‘disability employment gap’ – the stark difference in rates of employment between disabled and non-disabled people. Tackling the interactions between health, ageing and work will be essential to achieve this ambition.

The quality of work matters too. Bad work – stressful, insecure, physically demanding – can make you sick. On the positive side, fulfilling work can support your health and wellbeing. As well as your role and working environment, this includes positive workplace relationships and culture. For example, people who feel listened to by their manager are less likely to take sickness absence.

All these issues informed our response to the recent Work and Health Green Paper consultation.

If we all want to enjoy good work and good health as we age, we need a shift in the nature of work. Flexibility in where, when and how we work needs to become the norm for everyone. Schemes such as Access to Work, which funds workplace equipment and adaptations to help people manage their health condition at work, need to get better at reaching older workers with health conditions that are less immediately obvious, such as back or joint pain. In partnership with Business in the Community’s Age at Work campaign, we’re already working with employers to identify and spread these kinds of age friendly practices.

There’s much more that the NHS can do too, especially working with employers. In our response, we called on the government to develop and extend occupational health support and preventive approaches that help people stay in work and stay well. When people do develop health conditions, both employers and health professionals can do much more to help them stay in touch with work, and identify the adaptations they might need to return.

We also need to recognise that not everyone will be able to stay in work – and that sometimes it will be best for them to stop. We’ve called on the government to make sure that the benefits system supports people in this situation, for example by allowing older people with health conditions to start drawing their State Pension earlier.

Find out more about our programme, Being in fulfilling work.