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Dame Carol Black: Key steps in improving quality of life in the Cambridge region - and the need to tackle ageism in the workplace

Professor Dame Carol Black, chair of the British Library and the Centre for Ageing Better, is to take on the role of chair of Cambridge Ahead’s Quality of Life project, following Jeremy Newsum stepping down from the role. Dame Carol writes exclusively to the Cambridge Independent.

Professor Dame Carol Black photographed for the RSA, commissioned by Wardour (53999467)
Professor Dame Carol Black photographed for the RSA, commissioned by Wardour (53999467)

The pandemic has exposed the extent of inequality in our society. The people who have suffered the most are those who live in poverty and disadvantage. In the first year of the pandemic, ONS data showed that overall wellbeing of people plummeted.

In the last 20 years, I have explored some of the social determinants of health. Poverty, a secure early childhood, education, employment, access to good transport, and nourishing food are crucially important in determining our quality of life.

Of special interest to me is the connection between health, wellbeing and productivity. The social determinants of health were also an important component of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review conducted in 2018.

While working on that review, I witnessed how unemployment, poverty and despair were rife in parts of our city and wider county, in stark contrast with the buzz and aspiration of other parts of the region.

Skills and subsequent employment play a vital role in quality of life, and because of this I am excited to see how the new Anglia Ruskin University Peterborough will improve accessibility to skills. Set to open in 2022, the new ARU Peterborough campus won’t be a university like Cambridge – there would be little point in that – but it will build on industries and develop skills needed for the area.

Its core faculties will be business, innovation, and entrepreneurship, creative and digital arts and sciences, agriculture environment and sustainability, and health and education – and it will provide new opportunities and career pathways for people in the region, including the disadvantaged.

Although improving accessibility to education and by extension jobs and career pathways is a crucial first step in improving quality of life, for those already in employment it is important that employers support the agenda by promoting the health and wellbeing of their staff.

This will not only benefit the individuals, their families and society, but will ensure a more engaged and productive workforce. This relationship between health and wellbeing and productivity is often overlooked, with unhelpful emphasis on technological advances and upskilling of workers – only part of the story.

I have conducted a number of independent reviews for the UK government to find ways to address workplace wellbeing issues. Many current solutions to health problems connected with jobs or the workplace tend to be remedial interventions that deal with the symptoms – for example stress, anxiety, musculoskeletal problems and poor sleep – rather than the causes.

The key challenge is to foster an organisational culture focused on people and their wellbeing.

This requires well-supported people-centred managers and engagement in the boardroom. The pandemic has made employers think more about staff health and wellbeing and quality of life – we should not waste this crisis.

Older workers have great experience to offer
Older workers have great experience to offer

One of the priorities of the Centre for Ageing Better, which I chair, is good work for the mature worker. We want the over-50s to keep healthy and well, with the ability to work productively until aged 67 or beyond if they wish, so as to prepare for a healthy retirement.

We want their quality of life to be good and sustainable. Ageism is all too common in the workplace. People are living longer, well into their 80s and 90s, and, if they lose their job in their 50s, they could be unemployed for as long as they were in employment.

Lack of an adequate pension, savings, or any other means to live on result in uncomfortable older age for many people. Age brings knowledge and experience, and compassionate and wise employers can tap into this rich resource, keep or bring older people back into the workforce and, by doing so, improve intergenerational relationships, community cohesion, and overall quality of life.

Employers can also have a direct positive social impact on their local communities by, for example, giving employees time and flexibility to volunteer – the benefits of this are felt not only by the recipients but also by the volunteers themselves and, in addition, for many older people volunteering has provided vital social interaction, for example when Covid has made normal life more isolated. Such activities can usefully improve quality of life.

Cambridge Ahead’s member organisations employ around 40,000 workers, whose quality of life could be impacted positively, as an example to others in the region.

We also have the potential to influence both local and national decision makers; we can’t expect to solve every problem, but where Cambridge Ahead can make a contribution and have influence, we intend to do that, and to use our research to provide solid evidence for action.

To do this, we need to create a systematic approach and provide the tools, understanding and information that make change practically feasible for local business and statutory authorities.

I have reason to hope that we can collaborate across local government and industry, for example with the metro mayor and Combined Authority in our region, so as to make a substantial difference.

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