There’s an exodus of older workers from the UK workforce. New ONS data shows that 94.4 percent of those who became economically inactive during the pandemic were over the age of 50. That’s nearly half a million workers.

Should businesses care? Yes, argues Sarah Greenberg.

First, research from economists at the International Monetary Fund found that the exodus of older workers alone accounts for a whopping 36 percent of the pandemic era “Great Resignation” in the UK.

In the first 3 months of 2022, the Great Resignation has caused problems for companies, with 47 percent of British workers having either looked for a new job, thought about quitting, applied for a new job or spoken to their employer about resigning.

In addition to losing a critical mass of talent overall, companies are losing the most experienced members of their workforce. With that comes loss of leadership, diverse perspectives, institutional knowledge, and intelligence born of experience.


Can businesses turn the tides?

To understand how businesses can best intervene, it’s helpful to look at the root causes.

As reported in Bloomberg, a significant portion of those leaving cited concerns that business could work to alleviate such as stress or mental health reasons (10%), not feeling valued (9%), or a lack of flexible work options (2%). Companies can consider plausible pathways to enable workers leaving due to caregiving responsibilities (6%). And finally, leaders might consider how their employee experience can accommodate those seeking a lifestyle change (10%) or choosing early retirement.

The goal isn’t 100 percent retention. Worker mobility is natural and often positive. And of course, sometimes, there simply isn’t much of a choice, such as when a business closes.

But knowing that a combined 19 percent of older workers left because of mental health struggles and not feeling valued in their jobs serves as an important wake up call to businesses who need to realise that even small shifts towards better meeting the needs of older workers can make a big difference.


Addressing the causes

The pandemic changed the conversation on mental health and wellbeing. Leaders need to recognise that effective mental health strategy must address the entire workforce through proactive whole person support and prevention.

Research from BetterUp has found that 28 percent of workers took at least one day off for mental health, yet 55 percent of those respondents gave an alternative reason for it, suggesting a pre-existing taboo around mental health conversations.

Ageism can perpetuate mental health concerns, and older workers may hold relatively stronger internalised beliefs of stigma, or feelings that they would be judged for having a mental health concern.

Opening highly accessible pathways for mental health support without compromising a sense of privacy is key to creating a sense of belonging amongst older workers. Enabling flexible time off to have a session with a therapist or a coach; or to take a mental health day without needing to reveal the purpose can also help employees not have to choose between caring for their minds and performing at work.

Ageism, which one journalist dubbed “a puzzling form of discrimination against our future selves” remains a common form of bias at work. As well as the mental health implications of ageism, the myth of stagnation constitutes another form of bias against older workers.

Research has found that older workers in the UK are less likely to be provided with training by their employers, to have had on the job training, and are less likely to say that they have the same career advancement opportunities as younger workers.

Yet leaving older workers out of career conversations and development opportunities is a mistake. In coaching we see that the later stages of one’s career are often a time when one shifts from ego to impact, focusing on building a legacy and nurturing future talent. Supporting any employee’s drive to grow, especially employees with the most experience, is a win-win proposition.


Fostering a sense of belonging

The above strategies – mental health support and perennial development opportunities – convey a clear message to employees that they are valued as both workers and humans.

Having inclusive leadership is a key step in promoting belonging. It encourages an increase in productivity due to employees feeling supported and appreciated. This ultimately leads to enhanced retention.

The needs of older workers aren’t one-size fits all. The data sends an important message about a macro-level trend. To reverse this trend, leaders can engage best practices, and also listen to the unique needs of the most experienced workers within their unique organisation, turning the tides one business at a time.


Sarah Greenberg is the Director of Clinical Design and Partnerships at BetterUp