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Active and Healthy Ageing in the EU Workforce

What is the value of living longer if we are spending more of our later years suffering from chronic illness and working much longer than we ever planned? These were some of the themes explored this week at a major event in Nicosia on ‘Active and Healthy Ageing through the Lifecourse’. The so-called High Level Conference was held as part of the Cypriot Presidency of the EU and I was invited to speak on the theme of health in an ageing EU workforce.

One of the more ambitious goals which the EU has set itself is to increase, by two years, the number of ‘healthy life years’ we all live by 2020.  Of course reaching this target relies on some very rapid progress being made to improve some important and stubborn aspects of public health. For example rates of obesity and physical inactivity are at dangerous levels in many Member States. As we know, obesity is a risk factor for conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis, among others. As the workforce in the EU ages, more people of working age will be susceptible to these conditions which, in turn, will threaten their ability to stay in work or to be fully productive.

My address to the conference argued that good quality work can have real health benefits for older workers – even those with chronic diseases. I highlighted a number of projections of the burden of long-term and chronic conditions in Europe’s working age population. Of corse the two which will continue to dominate over the next two decades will be mental illness and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – and many people (perhaps 30 per cent) will experience both. I was able to draw upon the extensive international work which has been done as part of the Fit for Work initiative to illustrate the impact of MSDs on labour market participation, sickness absence, lost productivity and social exclusion. I made the case that stakeholders at regional, national and EU-level need to coordinate their efforts to prioritise early diagnosis and treatment for people of working age to support work ability and productivity.

Having listened to the very high quality presentations given by other speakers and the intelligent debate which followed among delegates, I have three observations about where more progress is needed.

First, it may surprise you to learn that I was the only speaker to focus on work ability and productivity among older workers. This suggests to me that, for many involved in the active & healthy ageing field, work is still not a mainstream concern among many policymakers and clinicians. This apparent ‘blind spot’ is concerning given the ageing of the workforce and the fact that most of us will need to work longer in the future.

Second, I’m not convinced that the very important Chronic Conditions Reflection Process, which has been gaining momentum and profile in the European Commission, pays anything like the attention necessary to the positive role which work can play for people with chronic disease, especially if they receive early healthcare interventions which allow them to stay in work. Fit for Work Europe has made a submission to the Reflection Process on MSDs which, I think, makes the case with some force.

Third, we had some illuminating presentations on topics such as diabetes, cancer and alcohol-dependency – all conditions which can reduce the quality of life in old age. However when I challenged clinicians working in each of these areas on whether they ask patients about the work they do, or whether they consider job retention of return to work as important clinical outcomes of their treatment, most looked at me blankly and answered that this was almost never a consideration. While I wasn’t totally surprised by this, it was disappointing to think that we are still assuming that it is probably best if older workers withdraw gracefully (and quietly) from the labour market once they develop a chronic health condition.

So, while it is excellent that so much good thinking, research and innovation is going into our thinking on active and healthy ageing, it is regrettable that the positive role which good quality work can play in this domain receives so little ‘air time’. It is to be hoped that the voices of those of us arguing these points will gain greater prominence in the coming years.

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This entry was posted on Friday, September 7th, 2012 at 1:42 pm and is filed under Europe. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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