Our regular blogger, Steve Herbert, Wellbeing & Benefits Director at Partners&, considers whether firms should look to mature workforce to solve the talent challenges hitting almost every sector of the UK

Many of the political and economic arguments of the moment are centred around the “supply” side of the economy.  In simple terms that means the availability of goods, services, and people to help contain inflation and importantly speed growth in the economy.

Of the above challenges the people aspect is probably the most immediately problematic for UK businesses.  For even as the nation heads towards a Bank of England predicted recession – and with the cost-of-living crisis now augmented by a cost-of-borrowing problem – there is still a significant shortage of skilled and available labour for employers to interview and recruit.

Indeed the latest ONS employment figures still show the UK’s unemployment rate to be at the lowest level since 1974, and whilst the number of jobs available and the employed numbers dropped a little, there remains a serious candidate shortage in many sectors.

Why the shortage?

Firstly, there has been the impact of Brexit.

Since the 2016 referendum many workers from the European Union (EU) have chosen to leave the UK to continue working within the EU.  The exodus was probably accelerated by the arrival of Covid-19, when many more will have felt compelled to return to the support networks of their friends and family.  The pandemic may have also deterred or prevented non-EU workers from travelling to the UK to backfill these new vacancies.  Steps may soon be taken by the government to encourage some controlled inwards migration, yet the reality is that any such move will probably take many months – or even years – to make a significant difference to the candidate supply currently being experienced.

The Covid pandemic also played a part in other ways.  Many older workers have not returned to the employment market after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, with at least some taking early retirement.  Others may not be able to return, particularly those suffering with Long Covid (ONS figures suggest that around 514,000 people in the UK have experienced Long Covid for two years or longer) or those who have become carers for family members.  This may help to explain why the “economically inactive” (broadly those that are not in work, education, or claiming benefits) numbers continue to rise.

The above factors have all combined to generate a perfect storm of candidate-shortages, a problem that employers could do without as they seek to navigate some exceedingly difficult economic waters in the months ahead.

Will older workers return?

Yet that difficult economic backdrop – and in particular the very real cost of living crisis – might be about to spark a return of older workers to the employment market, as evidenced by this story from the ITV News website in August.  Another story highlighted the call from Dame Sharon White – the John Lewis Chair – for the over 50s to return to the workplace.

It is of course true that many such workers might be returning through financial necessity rather than desire to recommence their career.  Yet employers should welcome this unexpected influx of potential candidates who have much needed experience and useful skills.  The next step in the process is to ensure that employers get the very best out of this returning pool of employment talent.

Different needs

To encourage older employees back into the workforce employers should firstly recognise the different challenges they face compared to their younger colleagues.  A 2018 House of Commons report (entitled Older People and Employment) highlighted several significant issues, with two key concerns being;

“health conditions and caring responsibilities are two of the biggest factors that result in people leaving the labour market early, or that prevent them from returning.”

It follows that employers who seek to support workers with these two issues will be best placed to benefit from the experience, skills and goodwill of older staff in the difficult months ahead.

The challenges

Of course, the period since the 2018 report has seen significant changes in the workplace, with flexible working now far more accessible.  This will be a useful tool to attract and retain older workers, and particularly those who also have caring duties to consider.

 

The other challenge – health – is a little trickier.  Older workers are more likely to have at least one long-term health condition (LTC), and whilst such conditions can often be controlled via changes in lifestyle and/or medication, LTCs can still harm productivity and can lead to lengthy absence.  Indeed, a striking sentence from the 2018 report is:

“While older workers tend to have fewer instances of sick leave than younger people, when they are off work it tends to be for longer periods” 

It follows that such employees are likely to benefit from better health and wellbeing support to ensure rapid treatment, a full return to health, and a quick return to the workplace.

 

Deploy wellbeing solutions

It is apparent that employers need to ensure practical support is readily available to all their older workers.

Tools that Partners& would particularly encourage all good employers to offer to their older workforce in the difficult months ahead include:

  • A good quality Employee Assistance Plan (EAP)
  • 24/7 remote access to a General Practitioner
  • Access to private healthcare treatments (including dental)
  • Early intervention services (often provided free alongside Group Income Protection policies)

The reality is that the return of some older workers can help employers navigate their way through the candidate shortages in the months and years ahead.  It follows that it is simply good business sense to make sure these workers are able to remain fit, healthy, and (of course) productive.

Steve Herbert is Wellbeing & Benefits Director at Partners&