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TUC: "Stark" class divide in over-50s leaving work

Over 50s in working class professions on low incomes are much more likely to be forced out by long-term sickness than higher earners, according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The number of people aged 50-65 neither in work nor looking for a job because of poor health has surged by more than 20% in the last three years to reach 1.5 million.

More than three quarters (77%) of that increase is made up of people on low incomes, according to the TUC's research published today (1 March), which it argued demonstrated a stark class divide. 

The UK workforce:

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Retired workers recruited back into the workforce

In January, chancellor Jeremy Hunt set out a plan to bring older people back to work, stating they should “get off the golf course”.

The TUC deemed Hunt's remarks an insulting misrepresentation of the situation and called on government to tackle the growing divide by addressing NHS shortages and supporting flexible working rights.

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “Every worker should be able to lead a healthy working life and to retire with dignity.

“But there is a stark class divide in this country when it comes to health and work. People in working class professions are far more likely to have to leave their jobs early because of sickness.”

Steve Herbert, wellbeing and benefits director at insurance advice firm Partners&, told HR magazine that it was unsurprising working class jobs were having a higher impact on employees’ health.

He said: “Low-income jobs are often manual or semi-manual ones, and as such there will inevitably be more ‘wear and tear’ on workers who have been in those sectors throughout their working lives.”

Part of the solution, he said, can be giving workers regular training on good working practices, to ensure that physical health issues that could otherwise be avoided, such as repetitive strain injuries, are minimised.

He added: “But also enabling employees to seek medical help quickly, and without joining those lengthy NHS waiting lists, becomes much more of a priority. 

“Employers with limited budgets can opt for remote GP appointments, and medical cash plans to provide some rapid access to medical support. For those with deeper pockets, now might be the time to invest in private healthcare for all workers.”

Black and ethnic minority workers are particularly likely to face health trouble, according to the TUC.

Shakil Butt, founder of HR consultancy HR Hero for Hire, told HR magazine: “While not explicitly said by the TUC, it is likely low income workers will tend to be disproportionately from black and South Asian backgrounds occupying the lower parts of the hierarchy of an organisation.”

To address the inequity, HR leaders should be proactive about understanding and closing the ethnic pay gaps in their workplace, he said.

“There is no shortage of reports that show black and Asian minorities are not given the same opportunities as their white counterparts and pay differentials contribute to continuing existing racial divides.”

The TUC also suggested that supporting flexible working would help workers with health issues stay in work.

Speaking to HR magazine, Nowak said: “Low-income workers shouldn’t be treated like second-class citizens when it comes to flexible working and career development.

“Flexibility can work in different ways. For example, flexi-time, giving people proper notice of shifts, predictable hours, compressed hours, part-time and remote working, can all help older workers stay in work.”

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at CSR charity Business in the Community, said flexible working can be useful for people at any stage in their career.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Flexible working is a consistent theme that comes up when people are asked what would improve their wellbeing and encourage them to stay in work for longer."