By Suzanne Nobrega
One of the biggest challenges that businesses face today is the aging workforce.
By 2020, one in every four workers will be 55 years old or over, while the number of younger people entering the workforce will decline. This trend will continue in the years ahead, according estimates of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For businesses to remain competitive, employers need to harness older workers’ knowledge while keeping them healthy, vital and productive. Adapting the work environment, along with safety and health policies and programs, can help retain older workers so they can contribute valuable knowledge and skills.
An estimated 75 percent of older workers have at least one chronic health condition such as arthritis, hypertension or diabetes, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Taking care of these conditions requires medical management and lifestyle practices, often during the workday.
Examples of a workplace that supports healthy living include having no problem keeping medical appointments, taking a 20-minute walk once or twice a day, having access to a place to test blood sugar, or having a clean and equipped meal space for eating healthy foods. To address these needs, employers must adapt the workplace environment, as well as establishing policies and programs aimed at health care and work-life balance.
Why are so many people are working longer? Consider the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. Many middle-aged workers took big losses in their retirement savings. According to the Economic Policy Institute, nearly half of all households have no retirement savings at all and many families have saved far below what experts recommend. Many older workers are working longer because they have to. For others, working longer is a choice—a matter of personal satisfaction. Whatever the reason, the workplace needs to adapt to the unique health, safety and work-life balance needs of older workers so they feel well, avoid absences and contribute to the success of the organization.
Concerns of Aging Workers
As we age, our bodies go through physical changes. Eyesight diminishes, making it tougher to see in poor lighting. Hearing, muscle mass, bone health and balance often decline. When older workers get injured on the job, the injuries can be more serious and take longer to heal compared with younger workers.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) studied the needs of aging workers in the manufacturing industry during the 2008 financial crisis. The CPH-NEW study showed that almost two-thirds of manufacturing workers had already planned or were strongly considering extending their working years due to economic uncertainty. A related finding was that people were working through chronic diseases and impairments that would otherwise have prompted them to change jobs or retire.
According to the lead investigator, occupational physician Martin Cherniack, “When we surveyed workers during the downsizing period, the most dramatic impacts to health over time were psychological and social, not physical. Workers reported substantial increases in job stress, whereas physical workload seemed less sensitive to increased demands.”
Employers should take note — these findings have major implications for worker safety and health. Employee programs and support for emotional and social well-being are extremely important components of employee health programs. Even so, ensuring good job design and work organization are the most powerful tools for avoiding the often invisible costs of high absenteeism, turnover, low morale and stress-related illnesses. Another major concern of workers in the CPH-NEW study was managing the demands of caring for elderly relatives. These challenges were particularly pronounced in “lean” organizations where time pressure was intense and work efficiency was critical.
“If employers can provide older workers even a limited number of elder care hours, that would be very meaningful for reducing stress and maintaining workers’ health and well-being,” says Cherniack.
Creating an “Aging-Friendly Workplace”
What can employers do keep their aging workers vital, healthy and productive? Government and industry experts alike have begun talking about the “aging-friendly workplace.” James Grosch, co-director of the Center for Productive Aging and Work at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, explains that employers can build an aging-friendly workplace by using a Total Worker Health® (TWH) approach.
“Employers need to look at the design of the work environment and job, as well as accommodations, policies and programs needed for health and life concerns that are important for older workers. Taking an integrated, comprehensive approach is key,” he says. Grosch adds, “There’s been a lot of research, and now we’re disseminating best practices for employers to use.”
Ways in Which Employers Can Provide a Compatible Workplace for an Aging Workforce
- Install better lighting
- Have ergonomically designed storage space and lifting equipment Increase autonomy (to counteract increases in job demands)
- Provide a private, clean space for personal medical and health management (for instance, a spot that can be used for testing blood sugar or, for the younger generation, for breast milk pumping).
- Maintain clean, well-lighted stairwells and sidewalks for employees to use
- Establish flexible hours to reduce stress and accommodate medical and family care needs
- Train managers to encourage subordinates to keep medical appointments and participate in workday health promotion—and “walk the walk” themselves. If supervisors take a walking break, it’s much easier for others to do it too.
Develop a Customized Program for Your Organization
Employee needs will vary, so it’s best to involve them as partners to guide the development of policies and programs in your organization.
“Start with a needs assessment,” advises Juliann Scholl, Co-Director of NIOSH's Center for Productive Aging and Work. “Get familiar with what employees see as their pressing needs.”
For example, if physical balance is a concern, install handrails along travel routes, reduce clutter and repair uneven or wet floors. For vision issues, improve lighting or design larger safety signs. Workers of all ages benefit from these health, safety and wellness improvements.
CPH-NEW is a NIOSH Total Worker Health Center for Excellence. Visit www.uml.edu/cphnew for resources and tools for enhancing workplace safety, health and well-being. Check out the Healthy Workplace Participatory Program toolkit for engaging workers as design partners for workplace safety and health.