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How has the pandemic changed work for people with health conditions?

Amy McSweeney

New research by the Centre for Ageing Better and the Institute for Employment Studies highlights the challenges faced by employees with long-term health conditions, warning that more support is needed to help people manage their conditions in the workplace if the state pension age is to rise further. In this blog, Centre for Ageing Better Evidence Officer Amy McSweeney explains how the pandemic has widened the gap between supportive and unsupportive employers and what the government and employers must do in order to help people manage their health needs.

  • COVID-19

With over a third of our workforce now over 50, it is more important than ever people are supported to keep working for as long as they want. Not only do older workers need to work, but employers need older workers. We are an ageing population and older workers are a vital part of our future workforce. Yet we know that over 800,000 people between 50 and State Pension Age are not in work but want to be and the single biggest factor pushing older workers out of employment is poor health.

Recently, we commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies to ask people in their 50s and 60s with long-term health conditions about their work, and how the pandemic is changing the way they work.

‘Evergreen’ truths about health and work

Many of the people we spoke to had received good support – both before and during the pandemic. What that support looks like is different for everybody, but it was often more about practice than policy. Formal and informal support, particularly from a line manager, was valued just as highly as making adjustments or providing specialist equipment. One of our participants, Caroline, who lives with arthritis, an auto-immune condition and cancer, felt “let down” by her manager, as she “did not understand the practices and policies the organisation has about sickness absence”. So, while the organisation had policies in place, this was not translating to support on the ground for Caroline.

All of our participants were in work at the beginning of the pandemic, and many value work not just because of its financial necessity, but also because it gives them a sense of purpose, and has social benefits. But not everyone felt they could be open about their health condition at work. Some felt that there would be a stigma around disclosing their condition – and that they might be perceived as lazy or vulnerable. With the full effects of the pandemic yet to be felt in the labour market, many of the people we spoke to were worried about competing with younger, non-disabled candidates in a tight labour market, feeling they would face both ageism and ableism from employers.

What has changed over the last year?

The ‘natural’ mass experiment of homeworking was a double-edged sword for a lot of the older workers we spoke to. While it allowed a greater level of flexibility, allowing people to set their own hours and fit their work around managing their condition, some felt that their mental health worsened because of remote working – and that it was more difficult for colleagues to spot when they were struggling.

Providing the right support

The pandemic has widened the gap between supportive and unsupportive employers, to the detriment of older workers. We’re calling on the government and employers to introduce flexible working practices including working hours and workplace adjustments in order to help people manage their health needs. As well as asking employers to create a culture that is anti-ageist and anti-ableist, we are urging the government to help make sure all employers are meeting their obligations by creating a single enforcement body for employment rights. We’ve heard how with the right support, older workers with long-term health conditions can thrive at work. Isn’t it time this was the case for everyone?