Dementia in the workplace what you need to know

Written by
Kate Headley

06 Apr 2017

06 Apr 2017 • by Kate Headley

The need to engage with, attract and retain older workers has, for some time, been on the agendas of HR professionals looking to expand talent pools and safeguard valuable existing expertise. However, the recent launch of the department for work and pensions’ ‘Fuller Working Lives’ strategy, designed to encourage people to extend their careers and put off retirement, is now pushing the concept into the wider public consciousness. 

It’s great that the government is encouraging one million older staff by 2022 to help tackle the growing skills gap and age bias in the country’s workforce. From an HR perspective, capitalising on the experience of older workers has immense benefits, but shifting workforce demographics also bring with them new challenges. One of these is dementia in the workplace. 

According to the government’s advisory, conciliation and arbitration service (acas), more than 40,000 people under the age of 65 have been diagnosed with dementia in the UK - and almost one in five continue to work after a diagnosis. Furthermore, a survey of HR decision makers in small, medium and large businesses carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business (CEB) found one in 10 firms had already employed someone living with dementia.

However, these figures look set to increase in the coming years as both UK life expectancy and statutory retirement age rise. By 2028, the retirement age for men and women will have risen to 67 and by the middle of the 2030s it is forecast that people aged 50 or older will account for over half of the country’s adults.

The CEB estimates that the average person diagnosed with dementia while still at work will have been in their current job for at least nine years. Despite the fact that 18% of people diagnosed with dementia continue to work after a diagnosis, the early retirement of those with the condition costs English businesses a staggering £627 million a year. With this in mind, HR and employers must not only learn to recognise the early signs of dementia, but also be equipped to offer adequate support to employees with the condition. 

It is crucial that line managers and HR professionals learn to recognise when an employee is displaying signs of the condition so that they can offer the right type of support in good time. A dementia diagnosis does not have to mark the end of work. Many people with the condition are able to continue working, particularly in the early stages, and would choose to do so given the option. 

Aside from the fact that employers have a legal obligation to support employees with dementia under the 2010 Equality Act, it is worth remembering that individuals with some degree of memory loss can continue to offer valuable skills and experience to workplaces, often for several years after diagnosis. For example, in the Alzheimer’s Society’s guide to creating a dementia-friendly workplace (2015), a case study is offered of an employee in a head of business development role who was formally diagnosed with dementia two years previously after first visiting her GP five years before that. At the time of writing, she was continuing in her existing job but stepping back from some line manager responsibilities as a reasonable adjustment.  

Employers must foster a culture of openness and understanding so that staff with dementia can be open about their condition without fear of stigmatisation. It is only once the condition is addressed that support systems can be put in place and early assessment and diagnosis is vital in preventing problems arising at work. 
Once leaders get to grips with dementia, they will find that adjustments may be as simple as installing new signage or allowing individuals to stagger their working hours to make their commute more manageable. Looking further ahead, HR professionals should also consider dementia issues when making future plans or revising their organisation’s HR policies and procedures. For example, dementia awareness may be introduced to the diversity and inclusion, and customer service elements of induction for new staff.

A recent survey by the Alzheimer’s Society found that almost 89% of employers recognise that dementia is a growing concern for their organisation. Many individuals living with this condition are already in employment, but as we continue to work until later in life, it increasingly important that HR policies and practices reflect the needs of the future workforce.