Identifying factors influencing return to work in the over 50s

This new study on the over 50s aims to investigate the relationships between health, worklessness, the return to work process and the sustainability of employment writes the SOPIE research team.

In 2014, the UK Coalition Government appointed a Business Champion for Older Workers. This appointment reflects the growing attention being paid to the over 50s, especially given the increasing life expectancy and the growing numbers of over 50s in work. Recent reports by AgeUK and DWP highlighted that there were 7.9 million people in the UK aged between 50 and 64 in employment and 250,000 more people aged over 50 in work compared to a year ago. However, unemployment in this group is considerably higher. The chart below shows the dramatic drop in labour force participation that occurs after age 50. Employment rates decline sharply from over 80% of 50 year olds being in work, to around 60% of 60 year-olds and just 30% of 65 year-olds.



Reasons for this drop are multifaceted, and include poor health, age discrimination, inadequate up to date qualifications and the difficulty of combining work with caring. In addition, unemployed people over the age of 50 still face higher risks of long-term unemployment than their younger counterparts.

Little evidence exists regarding the best way to support this group back to work, and therefore the current study seeks to address this gap. SOPIE, or ‘Supporting Older People Into Employment’ is a mixed methods study involving researchers from University of Glasgow, University of Stirling, and University of Edinburgh, and also one of the largest welfare-to-work providers in Scotland, Ingeus. This innovative study will take a mixed methods longitudinal approach to explore the transitions of individuals through the Work Programme, with a focus on the over-50s. This partnership between academics and Ingeus provides a unique opportunity to establish a long term study of older people going through the Work Programme (‘older clients’) and comparison of those who succeed in returning to and staying in work with those who do not.

The qualitative study will explore the experiences of both older clients (currently engaged with Ingeus) and Ingeus advisors, to better understand both the process of the Work Programme, and how it can be better tailored to the needs of the over-50s. The interviews with older clients will explore the wider contexts of their lives, to better understand how work and health are experienced, and whether there are additional unseen barriers to employment that these older clients struggle with.

The focus of this research will be on the over 50s but we also intend to analyse quantitative data on all ages to improve our understanding of differences. For this reason, the quantitative study population will be approximately 15,000 Ingeus clients (ages from 16 to 64 years) who entered the Work Programme in a 15 month period in Scotland. Of these clients 20% are aged over 50. The cohort will be followed up longitudinally for the two years they are engaged in the Work Programme. The quantitative element will utilise existing standardised measures collected by Ingeus. This study will provide information on health and employment outcomes (including progression towards work) by client characteristics and investigate how these differ by the intervention components received and external factors.

It is anticipated that the research will provide new information on the interventions, support, and individual factors which assist the over 50s RTW and sustain work, and the academic research will not only help to inform how the Ingeus interventions can be improved, but may also provide new information on how to prevent people having to leave work and extend working lives. This research will inform current and future welfare-to-work and job retention initiatives and improve their effectiveness in helping working age people extend their healthy working lives.

You can read a full SOPIE study protocol paper here, via BMJ Open.

The SOPIE study consists of Ingeus, a welfare-to-work provider, and the academic team from the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing  (Professor Ewan Macdonald, Dr Judith Brown, Dr Jo Neary from the Healthy Working Lives Group, along with Professor Alastair Leyland, Dr Hilary Thomson and Dr Vittal Katikireddi from MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, together with Professor Ron McQuaid (University of Stirling) and Professor John Frank (SCPHRP/University of Edinburgh).  This study has been funded as part of the MRC Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Extending Working Lives Partnership Awards. The main remit of this funding stream is to encourage multi-disciplinary cross-sector ageing research. You can find more information here, and follow them on Twitter @SOPIEstudy