If we are serious about maintaining the health of our workforce in the future, we need to get serious about tackling the health and wellbeing challenges of the largest and fastest growing segment of the working population today: the 40 to 65 year olds.
Currently most workplace health programmes are presented as a mass offering without any real consideration of the age of those targeted. A recent review of workplace health programs found that very few were designed for this mid-life group, and those that existed were ineffective.
A burning economic platform
By 2030 the 45-64 year old group will be the only section of the working population not to be in decline across Europe (and in the rest of the world will be growing by more than 40%).
This shift in demographics means it will be vital to keep mid life workers healthy and productive so that they are able to work into their late 60s and early 70s to support the economy. Note: The Australian government has already increased the age of retirement to 70, and most other developed economies are expected to follow suit.
The reality of health in mid life
The issue employers have is that this section of the workforce is the most likely to present with long-term conditions and be at higher risk for physical health problems than their younger counterparts.
Therefore, where budgets are limited, workplace health programs need to become less of a ‘tick box’ exercise and become more targeted at motivating this higher risk mid-life population to improving their health behaviours.
We aren’t saying that health doesn’t matter for those who are younger or at lower risk, but we are saying that more attention and resource should be targeted to those who need it most and understanding what matters most to them. Unfortunately this currently isn’t the case.
What matters to ‘mid-lifers’
The developmental psychologist Eriksen proposed that in the middle years of adulthood we have a need for ‘generativity’ and care.
From a psychological perspective, we become concerned about our sense of personal fulfilment and our help for others.
From a biological perspective our perceptions of ageing become more acute.
From a family and societal perspective many are often starting to care for parents as well as children, leading some to describe this mid-life group as the ‘bridge generation’.
In summary, all of these things influence our receptiveness to health and wellbeing in the context of our impending mortality and wanting to ‘age’ well.
We are as young as we feel
The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing has evaluated several different measures of happiness and life satisfaction and their impact on health over many years, and shown that the age at which people perceive they have ‘left middle age and entered old age’ predicts mortality (even after their health status is adjusted for). So if you feel young for your age, you might be more likely to live longer!
Our definition of feeling young for our age, comes from the integration of physical health, mental resilience and happiness (both our mood and purpose). By optimising these factors we give ourselves energy to live a fulfilling life.
One way to think about whether you are doing all you can is by measuring your 'Life Age', which provides a scientifically validated assessment of whether your overall lifestyle is ‘ageing’ you or ‘keeping you young’.
It’s a way of measuring whether you are not just “adding years to your life but life to your years”, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln. It's based on solid multi-cohort data on the impact of proven lifestyle factors such as the Mediterranean diet, physical activity, healthy body weight (and shape), not smoking and sensible alcohol intake. However the test also balances the importance of physical health risks with the extent to which you are enjoying life – not suffering from high perceived levels of stress, poor mood, poor sleep, and importantly for our mid-life workers we ask about overall life satisfaction. Consider it a little bit like the health economic measure ‘Quality adjusted Life Years’ or ‘QUALY’.
Life satisfaction as a protective factor for health and productivity
The middle years of life are a challenging period of life and many people start to struggle to find fulfilment at work during this time. People can feel undervalued, worried about being able to retain their employment, or may even be having to create a new career path following redundancy.
This is turn creates disaffection and low engagement with their employer, and in turn impacts life satisfaction and productivity.
It can also contribute to serious health risk issues. Our Life Age data shows that people aged 45-64 with the lowest levels of life satisfaction were more than 5 BMI points higher and had 14cm larger waists (with an average BMI of 30) than those with the highest levels of life satisfaction. One third of the same group did no physical activity and half ate no vegetables and drank sugary drinks every day. Importantly, even modest differences in life satisfaction were associated with worse health behaviours and when it came to mental or emotional well being the associations were even more stark.
Our life satisfaction correlates positively with job satisfaction and the associations we have found between health behaviours and mental wellbeing no doubt are impacted by the workplace.
This is why it is important to tackle workplace health and wellbeing in a more holistic and ‘age relevant’ manner i.e. If someone is unhappy with their life at work, seeing little future and lacking hope, it’s fairly certain that standard campaigns promoting broccoli and the latest corporate ‘step’ challenge won’t feature high on their agenda.
Taking a new holistic age-based approach
Engaging people with their health by telling them that both their behaviours and mind-set can influence their rate of ageing is the first step as it makes people reflect on their lives in totality.
This is particularly powerful for people in mid life, as they are starting to notice the signs of aging and think about the future. As one person with a Life age of 65 at 50 once said, “wow that’s retirement age. I’ve got to do something about it”.
Running a Life Age campaign provides a powerful audit and conversation starter for organisations – providing the employee with a report of their individual needs and the employer with an aggregated report of were the issues lie.
The next step is to then to facilitate real change. We believe employers need to go beyond standard wellness approaches that simply put the onus on the individual, and create a clear and accountable 2 way contract between them and their employees to create change which will ‘stick’. How?
First the Employer should take responsibility for supplying the employee with a supportive and encouraging environment that powers employee energy and wellbeing
Second, Employees should take responsibility for their own personal energy and wellbeing, just like they do for their knowledge, skills and behaviour
Employers need to look at their organisation culture, physical environment, leadership styles, workplace policies, as well as training and reward processes, to provide the right atmosphere for change.