Paul Farmer: on a mission to destigmatise older workers


Former Mind Chief Executive Paul Farmer is one of the best known names in the wellbeing industry, having led the mental health charity through huge change over his 16 tenure, receiving many accolades, such as ‘Britain’s Most Admired Charity Chief Executive’.

He is continuing his campaign to “speak truth to power” in his new role as Chief Executive of Age UK, where he is now turning his attention to creating a more age-diverse workforce, addressing ageism and specific mental health issues that affect older workers.

The panel session he is leading at MAD World on 12th October entitled ‘The Workforce of the Future – Multigenerational Wellbeing and Mental Health Expectations – is bound to be one of the most popular. We caught up with him ahead of his appearance to find out more…

I’ve read that your dad inspired you to take this job at Age UK. Can you tell me a bit about that?

I love talking about my father. He died last year aged 98 and was an extremely inspirational older person in the way he embraced later life, like travelling on his own into his 80s!

But as he became much older I increasingly noticed that people treated him like he wasn’t there, which was upsetting. For instance the way he was pushed about on train platforms. I remember thinking, ‘come on, we can do better than this as a society’.

What would you most like to achieve in this role over the next few years in terms of societal change?

To bring the contributions that older people make, and have made, more into the centre of conversations. I want to make older people who feel invisible to be as visible as possible and, in doing that, we need to change the conversation about later life.

Large numbers of people in 21st century Britain will live into their mid 80s, so that in itself creates a really important conversation about how we want to live this chapter of our lives. What do we want our contributions to be? What’s the potential to blend work with other things like volunteering? 

What about the work conversation about age – what would you like those watercooler conversations to be like?

Suddenly, there’s a lot of interest in older workers because of the labour market shortage. 

The challenge for workplaces is to think about: how do you mainstream this issue of older workers into the conversation and do that in a systematic way?

Workplaces need to be able to listen to older workers. They tell us that the most important considerations for them at work are flexibility and learning new things.

But there’s often been assumptions that, just because someone has done the same job for 25 years, they want to carry on doing that. 

Can you give me any examples of innovative ways that workplaces could support older workers better?

Apprenticeships for older workers, not just for younger people.

Internships, too, which also have this image of being ‘for’ younger workers.

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There’s also much talk today of people having ‘many’ different careers but, sometimes, the assumption is that this doesn’t apply to older people. Why not?

If you had to ‘sell’ the benefits of older workers to employers, what might you say?

We have an extraordinary pool of talent and expertise in this age group.

And, having a multigenerational workforce, where you are bringing together people who come from very different backgrounds and ages, really helps employees challenge their perceptions of the world. Work might be one of the few places that your employees have this opportunity, because the vast majority of us make friends with our own age group and cohort.

What’s your biggest learning about how the mental health issue affect older workers?

If you want good mental health for older workers then you need to apply a lens of good mental health to the entire workplace, because a more inclusive workplace, which makes older workers feel like they belong, flows from that.

There are lots of intersections, too. For instance, the menopause, which many workplaces are now talking about, mostly affects older workers, so is another way to give them space to talk about their experiences. Physical disability, too.

What have you learnt about overcoming the stigma of older age, compared to having a mental health condition?

Many of the principles for overcoming stigma are very similar. The most important thing being giving people the space to be comfortable talking about age. A number of employers, for example, are looking at ‘Age Champion’ models, learning from the ways we’ve tackled stigma in mental health.

Is it true that older people find it harder to talk about their mental health? 

Yes, certainly. Older people  do talk about their mental health but may not necessarily use the same language as younger people. For instance, they may say they are feeling ‘lonely’ and ‘isolated’. That can quite often be a way of saying you  feel very down, depressed and anxious.

You’ve also got to create the right environment and listen to what people are really saying, which may require a bit of ‘translation’ and take encouragement to get older workers to open up so you can really understand them.

The theme of MAD World this year is collaboration. What are your tips on collaboration, for which you’ve had phenomenal success with in your role at Mind, leading to transformative change?

You can’t make any significant change without collaboration. You have to work in partnership with other people. There’s no one organisation, or person that can effect change on their own. It has to be a coalition.

My biggest tips? Be prepared to put your individual, or organisational, ambitions slightly to one side at times to be able to work together better.

We managed great change at Mind because many people, not just in the mental health and charity world but also in the public and private sectors, were prepared to do just that because they saw the bigger goal.

Paul Farmer will be joining us at the MAD World Summit on 12th October, along with an an impressive roster of speakers from Age UK, BAM UK&I, BBC, Belron, BITC, Britvic, Costain, Deloitte, Dentsu, EY, Goldman Sachs, Heath Foundation, Heathrow, HSBC, IBM, Ipsos, Mars, Metro Bank, Microsoft, Mind, National Grid, Novartis, Unipart, Royal Bank of Scotland, Starbucks, Village Hotels and many more

If you haven’t booked your tickets yet, don’t miss out. You can find full details and book here.

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