How to… Retain and retrain an ageing workforce

Retrain workforce illustrated by a picture of a woman in a warehouse

If age-related conditions are hampering an employee’s ability to carry out tasks, there are better options for the business than retiring people off, argues Susan Jordan, chief executive of St Leger Homes

Since the Equality Act of 2010 was passed businesses are legally obliged not to discriminate against employees (or job applicants) on grounds of age. Staff can no longer be forced to retire at 65 unless it can be objectively justified; for example, if they are no longer able to perform a physically demanding job and to attempt to do so would cause health and safety issues.

However, as Susan Jordan, chief executive of St Leger Homes – an arm’s-length management company set up by Doncaster council to manage its 21,000 homes – explains, the fear of being without work can cause some older employees to try to hide illness which, in turn, increases sickness absence, adds to other employees’ stress and affects the bottom line.

Many of St Leger’s 750-strong workforce are long-term employees who transferred from the council when the company was formed in 2005. Twelve months ago the board approved a paper to ensure older workers are supported to retrain and work flexibly so they are not forced out of employment before they are ready. Jordan argues that it is better to support an employee back into work than penalise them for being off sick.

The New Directions programme has been such a success that in July St Leger was presented with a Business in the Community (BITC) award for championing an ageing workforce. Joining Jordan on stage at the ceremony at London’s O2 was a beneficiary of the programme, Stephen Shaw, a caretaker who St Leger retrained as a customer service adviser when the arches of his feet started to collapse.

“Steve feared losing his job,” says Jordan. “He struggled without telling anyone about his problems but got so worried that he would be made redundant or retired that he ended up needing to take time off sick. Fortunately, his line manager realised there was a problem.”

While acknowledging that not every member of staff will encounter difficulties nor want to change their role as they get older, Jordan shares her tips on how businesses can adapt to and help those who do…

1. Avoid the crisis before it begins

Jordan says: “It is imperative to have a career conversation early and in a supportive and positive way before problems arise. By getting the colleague onside from an early stage, the onus is on their attitude, aptitude and their commitment to want to change career or try something new. It’s up to the employer to encourage them and build up their confidence.”

2. Be realistic with the employee

“In Steve’s case, we had a number of conversations with him that culminated in us agreeing that it was unrealistic for him to continue with his physical job. However, we identified skills he had that were invaluable to the business; he is a really popular and personable member of staff with very good customer care skills. Who would want to lose those from a business?”

3. Accept there will be challenges

“You have to be prepared to support people. We talked to Steve about a frontline customer service role. It was a very big change from being outdoors all of the time to being in an office. He had some trepidation about using computers but his colleagues and line manager have really supported him.”

4. Consider other members of the team

“Another of our colleagues, Pete, a joiner in his mid-50s with many years of employment, was suffering joint pains in his wrists, knees and ankles. We initially put him on light duties for 12 months but that wasn’t fair to his colleagues who had to carry out the heavier workload.”

5. Think of the wider value

“Pete had lots of technical experience, understands the repairs system and has interpersonal skills because he’s used to being in and out of homes and dealing with enquiries. We invited him to be part of our technical support team, answering repair enquiries from our tenants. He could not only diagnose problems but provide technical advice within the contact centre to colleagues.”

6. See the cultural benefit

“As a responsible employer we’re doing the right thing for the right reasons. We’re retaining that level of skill, experience, knowledge and – most importantly for me – the culture and the values of the organisation. The message gets out to other colleagues that this is an organisation which cares and will help them if they’re struggling too.”

7. Recognise that responsibilities change

“As colleagues get older their commitments might change. They may have to care for older parents or young grandchildren. They might have illness themselves or illness in the family, which means they might need to adjust what they do and the hours that they work to do it. For us, it’s a question of ‘how can we be as flexible as we can to support those people?’”

8. Think of the business case

“If you’re not being flexible and supportive, there’s a chance people will go off sick, which not only impacts the business’s sickness absence but puts pressure on the team trying to cover that absence. The business case is clear: we have reduced sickness absence and the level of stress within the organisation. We think we’ve saved around £26,000 in recruitment costs already. There is a clear business case, but we do it because it’s the right thing to do for our people.”

9. Open up opportunities for other staff

“Having a plan in place gives the opportunity for someone else in the workplace to step up [and perform in the position vacated by the retrained employee] while you’ve still got your experienced member of staff there to act as a workplace mentor and help that person develop. If you’re giving someone the flexibility to reduce their hours, think about offering the other half of the vacant week to an apprentice or intern.”

Susan Jordan CV

Susan Jordan, CEO, of St Leger Homes discusses retaining and retraining staffRole Chief executive, St Leger Homes of Doncaster (from 2009). Previously she was chief executive of Six Town Housing, Bury (from 2004 to 2009)

Other previous positions Jordan has over 40 years’ experience in housing and housing management, having held senior positions in local authorities in
north-west England

On winning the BITC award “We were really honoured to win and delighted to have the work that we do recognised. I hope others will value the experience and skills of an ageing workforce. You can’t underestimate what they bring to the business.”

BITC’s Retain, Retrain, Recruit report offering guidance on how to support older employees is released this month at

About author

Richard Dunnett

Richard Dunnett

Richard Dunnett is an associate editor who writes about entrepreneurs, SMEs, FTSE 100 corporations, technology, manufacturing, media and sustainability.

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