Diane Lightfoot and Phil Friend discuss the importance of flexible working for older and disabled people and call for the introduction of a Workplace Health Service.
Flexible working arrangements have become increasingly popular in recent years, with employers recognising the potential benefits for employee satisfaction, productivity and work-life balance. However, the significance of flexible working for older and disabled people has been somewhat overlooked.
The provision of flexible working opportunities for these populations brings positive impacts on social inclusion, economic participation and overall quality of life. A more inclusive and accessible labour market could benefit the individuals concerned, their employers, wider society and the government.
It is important to examine the wider context. The world is experiencing a demographic shift, with an increasingly ageing population and a growing number of individuals living with disabilities. The latest Family Resources Survey 2021-2022 shows that:
- Sixteen million people in the UK have a disability, 24% of the UK population. This is an increase of 3.9 million since 2020-21.
- More people reported a disability across all age groups – children, working-age adults and those at state pension age.
- The most common conditions for working-age adults involve mental health and mobility.
According to recent data from the Office for National Statistics, the number of people aged 65 years and over in employment in the UK increased by a record 173,000 from January-March 2022 to April-June 2022. Nonetheless, recent labour market figures showed a record number of job vacancies and increased economic inactivity in the UK, which could provide opportunities for employers to hire older workers.
These changes necessitate re-evaluating traditional employment models better to accommodate the needs of an increasingly diverse population. Flexible working, such as home working, part-time work, job-sharing and job design, has the potential to provide a more inclusive and accessible work environment for older and disabled people.
For instance, fresh thinking on job design can enable someone with early dementia to undertake roles requiring a slight variation of tasks; or someone with an energy impairment to work at times to suit them if outcomes are delivered. This fresh thinking should also consider how functional (physical and cognitive) job descriptions may support the employee and employer.
Social inclusion and participation
Social inclusion is vital for the wellbeing of older and disabled people, as it helps to counteract the negative impacts of isolation and exclusion. Flexible working enables these individuals to engage in meaningful work and contribute to society while accommodating their unique needs and circumstances.
For instance, home working can provide an accessible work environment for those with mobility impairments or health conditions – energy-limiting conditions, chronic pain or anxiety, for example – that make commuting difficult. This does not reduce the requirement for policymakers and infrastructure bodies to make environments and transport accessible. Still, it provides a pragmatic interim response to a genuine issue that can work well for some – not all – disabled and older people.
Similarly, part-time work and job-sharing arrangements can help older workers transition into retirement, manage age-related health issues, or even re-enter the workforce, potentially in a new sector or role. Care must also be taken when addressing hybrid working solutions, as there is not just one form of hybrid, to ensure they are ‘balanced’.
Addressing skills shortages
The Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of Brexit have highlighted skills shortages in various sectors, such as healthcare, technology and logistics. By enabling the over-50s to rejoin the workforce, governments can tap into a valuable pool of experienced and skilled workers who can help address these shortages. Flexible working arrangements can make it easier and more appealing for older workers to return to work, as they can accommodate health concerns, caregiving responsibilities or a desire for a better work-life balance.
Flexible working within a 24-hour environment requires particular consideration. Over the past ten years, shift patterns have moved to long days, which has been welcomed by young families, particularly when both parents work in public services such as the NHS or emergency services, but these shifts are an enormous barrier to many disabled people.
The pandemic has led to a surge in economic inactivity and underemployment across all age groups. By promoting flexible working arrangements, governments can facilitate the reintegration of older and disabled workers into the labour market, thereby reducing unemployment rates and mitigating the adverse economic effects of the crisis. Furthermore, the experience and skills of older workers can help accelerate economic recovery and improve productivity in various industries.
Flexible working arrangements can promote the economic participation of older and disabled individuals by removing barriers that may otherwise prevent them from entering or remaining in the workforce. Employers can benefit from the skills, experience and diversity these workers bring, while the economy can benefit from a more inclusive labour market.
Additionally, flexible working can help reduce the need for government assistance, as older and disabled workers who can participate in the workforce can become more economically self-sufficient and enjoy associated improvements to their mental and physical health.
Governments worldwide are still grappling with the economic aftermath of Covid-19, which has disrupted labour markets and reduced levels of labour market participation – often referred to as the “Great Resignation”. Encouraging the over-50s to rejoin or remain in the workforce by providing “good work” that centres on flexible working arrangements coupled with decent pay can bring numerous benefits to governments, helping to address many of the challenges posed by the crisis and, in some cases, reducing people’s need for benefits.
Workplace Health Service
We know that “a healthier population is a more productive, economically active population.” Will thinking more creatively, in a less silo-oriented fashion, help us shape and deliver this? What if we created a WHS (Workplace Health Service)?
A WHS would require a collaborative effort yet to be seen. Rather than looking to the delivery of workplace health and wellbeing services through the individual lenses of occupational health and private sector health protection/medical insurance solutions, the government should be looking to push the two together, a move that would build significant collaborative advantage.
These two ‘providers’ of health and wellbeing solutions appear to compete rather than complement and have little knowledge of each other’s design and delivery models. By working in partnership (perhaps with employer organisations, associations and unions), they could transform the effectiveness, efficiency and value of the health and wellbeing of the UK workforce, take pressure off NHS budgets and help cut the costs of other services including welfare, police, prisons and criminal justice.
Financial benefits for government
As populations age, the burden on pension systems is growing. The reintegration of the over-50s into the workforce through flexible work arrangements can help to alleviate this burden by delaying retirement and reducing dependency on pension systems. Older workers who remain employed contribute to social security funds, easing the financial strain on governments and ensuring the sustainability of pension systems for future generations.
Governments also benefit from increased tax revenues when older workers rejoin the workforce. The income generated by the over-50s through employment can contribute to a more robust tax base, which is crucial for governments to finance public services and address budget deficits caused by the pandemic. This additional revenue can be allocated to healthcare, education and infrastructure, promoting economic growth and social welfare.
Changing the age narrative
Governments can foster intergenerational collaboration and knowledge transfer by encouraging the over-50s to rejoin the workforce and changing the narrative about age and talent. Employers should view experienced hires as valuable assets; older workers bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the workplace, which can be shared with younger colleagues. This collaboration can result in improved productivity, innovation and problem-solving. Additionally, intergenerational collaboration can help to break down age-related stereotypes and promote mutual respect and understanding between different age groups.
At the same time, flexible working can significantly improve the quality of life for older and disabled people by offering a better work-life balance and reducing stress levels. For example, home working can eliminate the need for long commutes, while part-time work and job-sharing can allow better management of health conditions or caregiving responsibilities.
Occasional in-person activity, thoughtfully planned and fully accessible, can also bring people together, promote social inclusion and enable relationships to flourish. These arrangements allow individuals to engage in leisure activities and maintain social connections, contributing to their overall wellbeing.
What needs to change?
There are some simple steps that governments and policymakers could take to remove the barriers to employment facing older and disabled workers.
Flexible working should become the default over and above the day-one right to request. The day-one right to ask is an improvement on the previous policy but needs to go further. We need to place greater responsibility on the employer to prove that flexible working is NOT reasonable, in the same way that women returning from maternity leave have the right to request part-time working, for example.
Changing the narrative about older workers and what it means to be over 50 also requires an awareness campaign about the benefits of an age-diverse workforce, underpinned by practical support including:
- improved knowledge of different career paths and opportunities
- awareness of specific interventions, such as redeployment, as a reasonable adjustment
- Awareness of workplace adjustments and the cost/benefit of supporting someone to stay in work
- Reform to statutory sick pay to enable people to stay in work and to phase back flexibly when they are ready to return.
Increased funding for disability employment services needs to be prioritised. The government could provide additional funding to disability employment services to help them deliver more tailored support to disabled job seekers. This could include job coaching, job brokering and advice and support to employers, so they can access advice on workplace adjustments and effective management practices when needed.
Employers could be encouraged to hire disabled and older workers through tax incentives. The government could offer time-limited financial incentives and support for employers who take on disabled and older people who have been out of work for a lengthy period or have ongoing health conditions.
Whereas permanent financial incentives suggest disabled and older workers are less productive, temporary financial incentives help overcome any initial employer reluctance connected to negative stereotypes. The incentives are no longer required once employers realise the individual is fully productive. This could help to encourage employers to create more inclusive workplaces and make it easier for disabled and older workers to find or stay in employment.
Finally, there is a need for improved access to training and re-skilling programmes. The government could invest in programmes to help disabled and older workers acquire the skills needed for in-demand jobs and pursue career progression. This could include specific funding for disabled and older workers to undertake vocational training, apprenticeships and other types of job training.
Flexible working arrangements are essential for promoting accessibility and inclusion in the workforce, particularly for older and disabled individuals. They cannot be allowed to be reversed. By removing barriers to employment and fostering a more inclusive work environment, flexible working can have significant social, economic and quality of life benefits for these populations.
As the global population continues to age and the number of individuals living with disabilities increases, the government, employers, policymakers, and society must recognise the importance of flexible working for these individuals and take steps to promote its adoption.
Diane Lightfoot is CEO of the Business Disability Forum, and Phil Friend is a disability consultant and campaigner. We thank the members of the RSA Inclusive Work, Disability and Ageing Network, who have contributed ideas and perspectives from disabled people, employers, campaigners and academics.
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