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Improving Public and Organisational Policies on Health and Wellbeing in an Ageing Workforce

Research into health and wellbeing in an ageing workforce has had a major impact at policy level both nationally and regionally.

“Johnson has made a sizeable contribution to the City’s Ageing Strategy… her work on the ‘Foresight Future of an Ageing Population’ evidence review directly fed into and contributed to the development and promotion of the Greater Manchester Local Industrial Strategy.”

(Programme Lead for the Age Friendly Manchester initiative at the City Council’s Manchester Health and Care Commission)

Impact highlights

Professor Sheena Johnson’s research into health and wellbeing in an ageing workforce first started in 2009 and her work has addressed three major policy-related issues:

Age, burnout and older worker competencies

Older workers are often associated with a decline in skills and abilities. However, her research supports an alternative understanding of the relationship between age and work, by demonstrating that older worker competencies can lead both to health and commercial benefits. This perspective emerged from research conducted as part of a three-year project she led between Alliance Manchester Business School and Frankfurt University.

The research team analysed how service sector workers of different ages managed stress, conflict and emotion regulation, as well as the impact these feelings had on participants’ health, for example work related burnout. Their findings showed that older workers possess skills beneficial to customer service organisations and so they should be seen as valuable resources. In particular, they found no evidence to suggest that older workers are less productive (or less competent) than younger workers.

Older worker needs

In 2015 Professor Johnson was invited to author a Foresight Evidence Review for the UK government which looked at how organisations are reacting (or not) to the changing demographic composition of the workforce. Findings included:

  • Older workers increasingly need to be protected against age discrimination by policies and practices
  • Stereotypes change slowly and older workers may continue to be negatively affected in the near future
  • There will be increasing older worker demand for part-time and flexible work
  • By 2040 retirement decisions should be driven by employee choice, or be performance-related, and be less influenced by expectations of a ‘normal’ retirement age.

Older worker health and wellbeing in the logistics and transport sector

Johnson's recent research has focused specifically on protecting the health and wellbeing of older professional drivers in the logistics and transport sector, and she has worked on two collaborative projects exploring the sector challenges and needs of an ageing workforce.

Following interviews with HGV and light-goods vehicle drivers she identified a number of industry specific challenges, such as inadequate working conditions and scheduling factors. She also found that these practices negatively impacted on older drivers’ work-life balance, caused wear and tear on the body, and led to difficulties in eating healthily and taking exercise breaks whilst on the road.

The research culminated in the creation of the Age, Health and Professional Drivers’ Network (AHPD) which Johnson founded, along with the production of health and wellbeing best practice guidelines.

Impact with policymakers

Based on her research Johnson contributed to a review for the Government Office for Science called The Future of an Ageing Population, a report which has subsequently been used by policymakers to formulate future-proof policies for an ageing workforce.

In particular, the Department for Work and Pensions used the report to directly feed into its Fuller Working Lives strategy which encourages businesses to retain, retrain and recruit older workers and presents the benefits of a fuller working life.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has also directly used Johnson’s research on ageing and well-being to inform its understanding of age-friendly workplaces, and her research has benefited employers in the region by helping them to understand the needs of their ageing workforce.

In particular she provided key evidence concerning the ageing workforce and their health and wellbeing needs to the Age Friendly GM Employer Handbook which was promoted to all companies and employers in the Greater Manchester area.

Professor Johnson’s research with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the national regulator for workplace health and safety, has also provided an evidence base from which to formulate policy and practices.

In particular she worked with the HSE to identify emerging health risks within the logistics and transport sector’s ageing workforce, before developing novel ways to better prepare for and deal with these risks.

The work documented the significant adverse health consequences for older workers, such as musculoskeletal disorders, stress, fatigue and obesity, as well as increasingly harder physical demands on ageing bodies when performing loading and unloading tasks. Previously, the HSE had little data on these specific risks.

In summary, her research has improved local and national government understanding of the need for greater workplace protection for ageing workers.

This has resulted in new strategies and policies at the Department for Work and Pensions and at the GMCA, while with the HSE she has established an industry-wide network for the UK logistics and transport sector and produced best practice guidelines that are used by haulage companies, delivery drivers, unions, and the DVLA to improve the health and wellbeing of an ageing workforce.

The guidelines and network have resulted in a significant number of changes to organisational understanding, policies, training and practices.

Further reading:

Male dominated workforces, such as in the haulage and logistics sectors, could be hardest hit by the effects of poor mental health.

Improving the long-term health and wellbeing of haulage drivers is crucial to fixing the current driver shortage.

Haulage drivers are key workers during the pandemic, but there has been little discussion about how the crisis is affecting them