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Rick Hughes

British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy

Workplace Lead Adviser

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The Art of Communication – supporting those nearing retirement age


If there is one thing in life we can all be sure of it is that we age – hopefully gracefully, but we cannot escape the inevitability of growing older.

For one so widely recognised, this fact can often be surprisingly difficult to accept. Employees in particular can often struggle to come to terms with their depleting ability to meet the demands of their job, their gradual ‘loss of edge’ or the fact that they are taking a bit longer to perform tasks. And with all of these there is an increasing awareness of their impending retirement. This in itself can be distressing.

So what can organizations do to support those nearing retirement?

Have the conversation.

Age is a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010 and therefore it demands certain sensitivities. But that’s not to say that it should not be talked about. Quite the opposite. Progressive organizations that engage with staff openly and respectfully, as part of their ‘duty of care’ obligations, can make the prospect of retiring manageable and palatable.

Taking care to acknowledge particular sensitivities throughout these standard procedures can ensure that sometimes ‘difficult’ conversations can in fact become incredibly positive and fruitful.

Top tips for supporting the mature worker

1. Empathise. The overarching sentiment most employees will associate with the prospect of retirement is fear:

Fear that without their job they are “nobody”: a job can give us a sense of purpose and much of our ‘work-self’ can be characterized by what we do.  Yet with looming retirement there can be a real anxiety about a loss, or at least a change, to this work identity. If we’ve worked in organizations for the last forty odd years, that’s a long time to be refining, developing and reinforcing that work identity.

Fear that they will no longer command the same respect or authority: with a life-time of work experience, we have a huge amount to offer. We may be quite proud of what we’ve achieved. And rightly so. This generates a respect and highlights how and why more mature members of our organizations make such excellent mentors for younger, less-experienced employees.  But a work pride can potentially be shaken if we feel that our capabilities have reduced and especially where we see young ‘hotshots’ stealing the limelight we once held.

Fear of the unknown and a loss of control: with approaching retirement we’re moving from a relative state of stability to one less fixed. Financial insecurity can be a big concern for many – if an employee has always worked hard to support their family, for example, they might fear that, without their job, they have lost control and could struggle to do so. Feeling that they might have “nothing to do with their time” or “no purpose” may also be difficult for some to come to terms with.

2. Maintain an effective and reasonable appraisal or performance management system as part of good business practice to recognise changes in employee performance. For any underperformance issues, instigate standard procedures to nurture and support the employee, offering adaptations where appropriate.

3. Eliminate the element of surprise and engage with employees nearing retirement. Provide an appropriate forum, one-to-one facility or counselling support to help prepare for and manage the retirement transition.

4. When approaching the subject of retirement issues, be mindful of body language, language and tone of voice. As we’ve discussed, some employees may be very sensitive and anxious about retiring and may pick up unintended negative cues during discussions.

It is worth bearing in mind too that often HR professionals who have been given this task may be younger and less experienced than the older worker they have been asked to talk to. There are various sensitivities around this that should also be taken in to account.

5. Make the setting relaxed and comfortable. Yes, the conversation needs to be formal but process doesn’t have to be overtly constricted. People are people.

6. Expect the unexpected. Though that’s easier said than done. The vast majority of employees leave their employer on glowing terms, with fond memories and backed up with on-going friendship networks. But occasionally, someone might not want to accept retirement or can’t face the prospect of not working. Counselling can be hugely helpful here too.

7. Keep your message clear and simple. What are the issues, what are the options and how can these be communicated and implemented?

8. If helping an employee to explore ‘next stage’ options, ask about hobbies and interests, as well as current family and social networks. Do they engage in social media networking? What clubs and societies have they been members of?

9. Plan the end and talk through the employee’s last day. Does the employee want a ‘leaving do’? We might think this is the ‘norm’ but it’s worth asking the question. Or perhaps they’d prefer a smaller scale ‘send-off’. 

10. Lastly, we’re all going to get old and may experience the reality of retiring. How would you want to be treated and what would make the transition as positive and fruitful as possible for you?

For some, of course, it can be more troubling, triggering a set of fears and anxieties that are difficult to manage. And as we age, things can preoccupy and worry us more. In such cases, talking to a counsellor can help. Independent of family and work, they can help us get a better perspective on how we feel and allow us to process and prepare for the changes ahead.

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Rick Hughes

Workplace Lead Adviser

Read more from Rick Hughes