Early retirement is a thing of the past as the new expectation is that we will work well into our 60s but, asks Dean Royles, how can we ensure NHS staff stay productive and enjoy what they do?

I’m not that old (well, in my head, I’m not that old) but when I started work in the 1980s, the received wisdom about work and working lives was very different. The end of a “job for life” and working for one employer throughout a career was announced.

‘Many NHS staff work well beyond 65; at our last estimate there were 19,000 staff over 65 and 3,000 staff over 70’

Instead came the rise of flexibility and portfolio careers, and the wide belief that we should plan our finances and pensions so we could retire at 50 − yes 50.

Such was the strength of this belief that my first mortgage was for 23 years rather than 25, because I wouldn’t want the burden of a mortgage when I was over 50 (if only it stayed that way). Yet during my working life, that expectation of working until 50 has changed to an expectation of working until we’re 68. Another 20 years of working life.

This has not only changed the expectations of all of us, but has huge implications on policy decisions, planning and changes to pension schemes. Many places have seen the end of final salary schemes in favour of defined contributions, with significant overall increases in contribution rates and retirement ages in the public sector − the NHS retirement age increased from 60 to 65 in 2008 for new pension entrants and is set to rise to 68 by 2046.

Looking after staff

NHS Employers and partner organisations have now launched the NHS working longer review. The new Public Service Pensions Act means from 2015, 70 per cent of the NHS workforce will have a pension age between 65 and 68. The current average age of people retiring in the NHS is 63. Like many sectors, we want to know how best to manage this change. How do we ensure we employ staff safely as they and their manager’s age?

This is not unique or exceptional. Many NHS staff work well beyond 65; at our last estimate there were 19,000 staff over 65 and 3,000 staff over 70. The difference is this will become more widespread, and some staff may have to work longer, not just want to work longer. How do we ensure they are productive, valued and enjoy work?

Research from Bath University tells us:

  • For staff to remain productive there needs to be a good fit between the demands of their jobs, their working environment, personal circumstances and their capability.
  • People have less than complete awareness and understanding of their work, retirement and pension options and choices.
  • Line managers need training and support to manage older employees.
  • The average age of NHS employees is 43.7 years, but projected to rise to 47 by 2023.
  • Older people (in good health and with up to date skills) perform as well as their younger counterparts − especially when working in a good working environment and culture.

We have announced a call for evidence that seeks to identify examples of good practice that enable staff to continue working and addresses barriers that make working longer more difficult. We have set up a Twitter account so you can follow the conversation and keep up to with the working longer review group’s latest news. Follow us at @NHS_WLR.

Dean Royles is chief executive of NHS Employers