Age and Work‐Related Health: Insights from the UK Labour Force Survey

AuthorRhys Davies,Melanie Jones,Huw Lloyd‐Williams
Publication Date01 March 2016
Age and Work-Related Health: Insights
from the UK Labour Force Survey
Rhys Davies, Melanie Jones
and Huw Lloyd-Williams
Data from the UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) are used to examine two
methodological issues in the analysis of the relationship between age and work-
related health. First, the LFS is unusual in that it asks work-related health
questions to those who are not currently employed. This facilitates a more
representative analysis than that which is constrained to focus only on those
currently in work. Second, information in the LFS facilitates a comparison of
work-related health problems that stem from current employment to a more
encompassing measure that includes those related to a former job. We find that
accounting for each of these sources of bias increases the age work-related
health risk gradient, and suggest that ignoring such effects will underestimate
the work-related health implications of current policies to extend working lives.
1. Introduction
Over the last two decades, there has been a sustained increase in the employ-
ment rate among those approaching retirement age within the UK, marking a
reversal of the trend towards early retirement witnessed during the 1970s
and 1980s. This increase has been particularly apparent among women (see
Office for National Statistics (ONS) 2013a). Despite such trends, low rates of
fertility (ONS 2013b) and increasing levels of life expectancy (ONS 2013c)
have contributed to concerns among policy makers regarding the affordability
of caring for the elderly population. Governments have, therefore, continued
to seek ways of encouraging older workers to stay in employment longer
(Schils 2008). Three significant policy changes have been implemented in the
UK in recent years to support the extension of working life: the incorporation
of age as a protected characteristic within anti-discrimination legislation
Rhys Davies is at Cardiff University. Melanie Jones is at Swansea University. Huw Lloyd-
Williams is at Bangor University.
© John Wiley & Sons Ltd/London School of Economics 2014. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
British Journal of Industrial Relations
54:1 March 2016 0007–1080 pp. 136–159
doi: 10.1111/bjir.12059
under the 2010 Equality Act; the abolition of the Default Retirement Age in
2011, which means that businesses can no longer set a compulsory retirement
age; and an increase and equalization of the state pension age (66 years for
both men and women by 2020) implemented under the 2011 Pensions Act.
These legislative changes have been accompanied by other government initia-
tives aimed at encouraging businesses to employ older workers and enhanced
provisions for unemployed job seekers over the age of 50 through the job
seekers allowance programme (Walsh 2012).
There is strong evidence to suggest that being in work is good for both
physical and mental well-being (Waddell and Burton 2006). None the less, it
is important to understand the health implications of policies that encourage
people to work longer. Statistics published by the Health and Safety Execu-
tive (HSE) indicated that in 2011, 1.1 million people in the UK who worked
during the last year were suffering from an illness that they believed was
caused or made worse by their current or past work. Over one in five of these
people were aged 55 or over. A further 0.7 million former workers (who last
worked over 12 months ago) reported suffering from an illness that was
caused or made worse by their past work (see HSE 2011). A number of
studies confirm that older workers are more likely to report a variety of
work-related ill-health conditions (Bohle et al. 2010; Griffiths 1997; Griffiths
2000; Jones et al. 2013; Rogers and Wiatrowksi 2005). While physical and
cognitive changes associated with age have not been found to adversely affect
productivity, particularly when set against the increased skills and experience
possessed by older workers (Yeomans 2011), there are concerns regarding the
nature of employment opportunities available for older workers in a seg-
mented labour market (Goos and Manning 2007). Seeking reduced levels of
exposure to risk (referred to as ‘downshifting’) or responding to job loss
increasingly involves older workers gaining employment characterized by
non-standard employment relationships, particularly among women and
those in low-paid occupations (Bailey et al. 2008; Blyton and Jenkins 2012;
Smeaton et al. 2009). Such forms of ‘precarious employment’ are themselves
associated with increased risks of ill-health (Benach and Muntaner 2007).
This article provides new evidence on the relationship between age and
work-related health problems based upon data from the UK Labour Force
Survey (LFS). A limitation of previous research is that it is often derived
from cross-sectional studies that ask those in work about their health in
relation to their current job. Such studies are, therefore, often unable to
account for the ‘selection biases’ that arise out of employment and occupa-
tional choices made by individuals, some of which aim to ameliorate the
symptoms of their ill-health conditions. Such biases are likely to lead to an
underestimate of the true prevalence of work-related health problems, and
may bias the estimated correlation between personal and employment char-
acteristics and work-related ill-health. The selection bias arising from the
decision to work is recognized and has been referred to as the ‘healthy worker
effect’ in occupational epidemiology, although this has been criticized for
being a vague concept (Li and Sung 1999) and so is not used here. These
© John Wiley & Sons Ltd/London School of Economics 2014.
Age and Work-Related Health 137

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