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Looking after your older workers during the coronavirus

Older workers are facing specific challenges during the coronavirus and beyond, and may need specific support. Here’s what you should do.

By Muriel Tersago, Principal Consultant, Timewise

Older worker coronavirus

Following government restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus, employers in all sectors are working through the implications for their business and their employees. There’s a lot of useful advice out there on topics such as supporting employees to work from home or how to run virtual meetings. But one group which is easy to overlook is older workers, typically defined as those over 50. 

There are a number of reasons why this demographic need bespoke support, and a number of steps you can take as an employer to provide it, both in the current crisis and beyond. Here we set out the key points for you to think about.

Supporting older workers for the duration of the crisis

In the short term, employers need to make sure that their older workers are being considered in any strategic or operational decisions that are made:

(1) Recognise the particular circumstances of this group

While many older workers are in good health, some do develop health conditions as they age, which might make them more vulnerable to coronavirus. They may also have caring responsibilities for high-risk elderly relatives. Critically, they may be unwilling to ask for help.

Suggested actions:

Line managers should proactively seek one-to-ones with older reports to discuss their needs and concerns, and explore adapting their work to fit.

HR could set up company-wide social networks for older workers, and sign-post to websites offering advice and information on relevant issues.

(2) Consider how employee contract decisions affect this group

Many employers are facing difficult decisions around reducing staff hours and redundancies. They are also having to understand and share information about the government’s financial support packages.

Some older workers, who are approaching retirement, may need to think carefully about how any changes to their working hours and employee status could impact their pensions, and other employee benefits such as healthcare cover.

Suggested actions:

It may take HR teams time to work through the implications of these issues and for leaders to decide on their preferred course of action. So, in addition to issuing a general holding statement, it is worth reassuring older workers that you understand their specific concerns.

(3) Be proactive about providing tech support

Although older workers are likely to be comfortable with the technology they use at work, some may be less familiar with the platforms and apps that support remote working.

Suggested actions:

Don’t assume that everyone is up to speed with existing or new technology.  Provide clear and friendly one-page guidance documents before using a new platform, encourage people to practise, and invite questions. 

How-to tips are often best provided by peers within a team, rather than a more formal conversation with the IT helpdesk. Consider setting up IT buddies, or appointing a ‘tech guru’ in the team who can help others.

(4) Seek their input on remote and flexible working

Flexible working can be used very successfully to help older workers ease into retirement. The changes brought about by the coronavirus mean we are all working differently and there is an opportunity to understand and share learnings from different groups, including older workers.

Suggested actions:

As a minimum, line managers should be checking in with all colleagues about how they are adjusting to any new patterns on a day-to-day level.

The next step is to take a more strategic look at its impact on individual roles, to evaluate what is working well and what could be done better. Exploring this specifically with older workers could help HR create a flexible pathway into retirement.

(5) Encourage staff to use downtime for personal or career planning

On a similar note, it could be worth encouraging older workers to use any downtime to reflect on their next steps, both inside and outside of work. The change of pace and environment offers an unusual opportunity for people to consider their options as they start looking towards retirement. 

Suggested actions:

HR could provide guidelines and tools for individuals. The Centre for Ageing Better has developed a midlife MOT framework which provides a structure and ideas on what to consider.

HR or training departments may also want to alert employees to any training opportunities which are available.

It will be important to handle this issue sensitively, however, so older workers don’t fear they will be first in line for redundancy consultations.

Thinking ahead to the post-coronavirus workplace

It’s widely accepted that society will be different after coronavirus has passed. This will be reflected both in the workplace as a whole, and for specific groups of employees. 

Here are five issues, which will impact older workers, to consider when you begin your post-pandemic planning.

  • The emotional impact of the coronavirus is likely to continue even after the worst is over. HR teams should develop support systems for employees who have been bereaved, or whose wellbeing has been affected.
  • Your over-50s may need to carry on working for longer due to loss of income and smaller pensions and savings caused by economic turbulence.
  • The experience and skills many older workers offer can make them real assets to an organisation, and so their retention worth prioritising. 
  • Learnings from this coronavirus ‘remote working experiment’ could be used to create a flexible pathway for older workers which could keep them on board for longer.
  • Readjusting to the post-coronavirus world may not be easy, and employees may be loath to let go of the flexibility they have acquired. Taking a strategic look at when, where and how much work can be done is a good first step for designing flexible, future-fit roles.

It is also important to remember that, as Patrick Thomson from the Centre for Ageing Better recently noted, there are many over-50s working on the frontline right now, for whom remote working is not a possibility. These include care workers and NHS and retail employees, as well as people working in local government and education, who are keeping things running for the rest of us.

And when we exit this crisis, we need to ensure that we value these roles properly, and enable the older workers who are delivering them to have some say over how flexibly they work. It will be our duty to protect their well-being and living standards in future, as they are protecting us now.

If you would like support or information on any of the topics covered above, please contact Timewise or the Centre for Ageing Better.

Timewise and the Centre for Ageing Better ran an 18-month programme with employers including Guys’ and St Thomas’ Trust, and Legal & General, exploring how to support over-50s to access the benefits of flexible working. The full report was published in 2020

Published April 2020

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