Could frailty screening help extend our working lives?

The Government’s Business Champion for Older Workers, Andy Briggs, has called for one million more older people to be in work by 2022. But to enjoy the benefits of working longer, we need to remain in good health. Professor Keith Palmer from the University of Southampton and colleagues investigated whether signs of frailty in mid-life can predict difficulties in continuing to work later on. Here he outlines their findings and makes the case for developing screening to identify those workers most in need of support.

By 2020 the over-50s will comprise almost one third of the UK’s working age population, and more recent Government policies, including changes to the age at which we can claim our State Pension, have been focused on extending our working lives.

But, according to the Centre for Ageing Better, the single biggest reason for people leaving the workforce before retirement age is health, and nearly half of all people between ages 50 and 64 have a long-term health condition. The charitable foundation has been highlighting the need for more support to allow older people to continue to work.

For people with poor health, previous studies have shown that extending their working lives may not be in their best interests. Our research is the first to measure frailty and symptoms of pre-frailty in people aged 50-65 and determine whether and how it is associated with employment difficulties. The idea was to see if there is a way to identify early those people most likely to find it difficult to continue working.

We used information about more than 8,000 people collected through the Health and Employment After Fifty (HEAF) Study, which involves patients from 24 geographically-dispersed GP practices in England.

They answered a range of questions about whether they suffered from exhaustion, had a slow walking speed, a weak grip (determined by whether they had problems opening new jars), low levels of physical activity and whether they had unintentional weight loss in the past year.

People with more than three of the above symptoms were classed as ‘frail’, while those with one or two symptoms were classed as ‘pre-frail’.

They were also asked employment-related questions: were they currently working and, if not, had their previous job ended for health reasons?

Those in work were asked:

  • their total sickness absence over the past 12 months
  • had they needed to cut down at work because of their health?
  • were they coping with the physical and mental demands of their work?
  • Did they expect to be able to do the same work in two years’ time?
  • Was their job secure?
  • Did their work affect their sleep?

Information about their well-being, including back and other pain, was also collected, and participants’ jobs were classified as higher managerial, intermediate or routine/manual.

Health problems

More than one third of the women, and 27 per cent of the men studied were no longer working. Of these, around one third of both sexes said they had left their job because of a health problem.

Disorders or pain affecting movement, such as bone, joint or nerve problems, and mental illness, were the most common reasons for stopping work.

Many of those still working reported difficulties with their jobs, with between 6 and 7 per cent having taken 20 or more days’ sick leave in the last year. Around one third reported problems coping with work’s physical demands, and 20 per cent said their job was insecure.

Four per cent of the group studied were classed as ‘frail’ and, within this group, more than three-quarters reported low physical activity, weak grip and slow walking speed, with women more likely to report symptoms. Nearly one third of the participants were classed as ‘pre-frail’.

When work situations were taken into account, we found three quarters of those classified as ‘frail’ were no longer working, with 60 per cent of these leaving their job for a health reason. Only a quarter of the ‘non-frail’ participants had stopped working.

The odds of not being in paid work were more than ten times higher for frail compared with non-frail participants, while the likelihood of leaving work for health reasons was higher still (up 30-fold). In frail people who were in work, the odds of prolonged sick leave, cutting down a lot at work and struggling with work’s physical demands were about 11 to 17 times greater than for non-frail workers.

‘Pre-frail’ subjects also had more work problems, although not to the same extent as frail subjects. For example, their odds of health-related job loss were up 3.7-fold, and their odds of having prolonged sick leave or having to cut down a lot at work in the past year were up 2.5 to 3-fold.

Frailty effect

The impact of frailty on not being in work, taking more sick leave, and not coping with work demands was about 2–3 times greater among those from poorer backgrounds. However, we found ‘frailty’ was strongly associated with poor work outcomes even for those in higher managerial positions.

Looking at the frailty symptoms individually, we found most of the work problems to be most strongly linked with slow walking speed. Strong links were also found with poor grip strength and exhaustion.

Our findings showed strong associations between certain symptoms, for example those with slow-walking speed also tended to be exhausted or have a weak grip. Similarly, there were links between weak grip and exhaustion, and slow walking speed and low physical activity.

Strong associations

While our findings need further follow up, assessing the same group of patients over time to confirm the links between different physical symptoms and future work problems, our large sample size has confirmed frailty symptoms are common in people aged 50-65.

As the first study linking frailty and pre-frailty symptoms to work outcomes, we have shown strong associations with worklessness, health-related job loss, sickness absence and not coping at work.

Through further study, these symptoms could be refined to form the basis for simple screening tests for older workers, and spearhead the development of targeted support to improve physical function in those most at risk.

To realise the call of the Government’s older workers’ champion for one million more older people to be in work in five years’ time, identifying those most likely to struggle to remain in the workplace will be crucial.

The Government, NHS and employers will need to heed the call from the Centre for Ageing Better to develop workplace adaptations and age-friendly practices, and extend occupational health support and targeted preventive approaches that help people stay in work and stay well.

Further information

Frailty, prefrailty and employment outcomes in Health and Employment After Fifty (HEAF) Study is research by Keith Palmer, Stefania D’Angelo, Clare Harris, Cathy Linaker, Catharine Gale, Maria Evandrou, Holly Syddall, Cyrus Cooper, Avan Sayer, David Coggon and Karen Walker-Bone of the University of Southampton and Tjeerd van Staa of the University of Manchester. It is published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Photo credit: Roberto Trombetta

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