Profound changes continue to unfold in the American workforce as Baby Boomers—Americans born between 1945 and 1964—swell the ranks of our workplaces. This has led many employers to fear the possibilities of negative impacts associated with this demographic trend. On one hand, they are concerned that having age-gifted workers on the job may mean escalating age-related healthcare costs, workers compensation and pension liabilities. On the other hand, they worry about impacts on quality and productivity or an impending shortage of skilled labor as skilled, experienced veteran workers retire. But these concerns haven’t been paralyzing. We’ve learned some employers are looking at the aging workforce issue more broadly, often positively, and have implemented policies and practices that support a more competitive, sustainable and safer workforce, regardless of its overall age. We’ll share with you some strategies from our research and partners’ research and we invite you to share your own experiences as well.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 25% of the workforce will be over 55 in 2020. That’s one in four workers — up from one in every five workers just two years ago. Why? In addition to Boomers, the elimination of mandatory retirement and the enactment of age discrimination laws accounts for some of this trend. Better life expectancy and health is partly responsible. And for most, early retirement is largely a thing of the past. Many workers now choose to or must remain in the workforce longer than they had originally planned.
So what about health and safety concerns related to the graying of our offices, retail outlets and factories? There is no consistent relationship between aging and work performance. Although older workers are more likely to have chronic health conditions and physical limitations, these factors are not directly related to decreased work performance in most cases. And there are many advantages to maintaining and hiring older workers. They generally have more experience, better relationships with co-workers, and report less stress at work. Older workers also have fewer non-fatal injuries than their younger counterparts. But when an injury occurs, the injury tends to be more severe and it takes longer for the worker to recover.
Work is beneficial for many of us as we age. Work may provide access to better healthcare benefits. Emerging research shows a positive relationship between working longer, better cognitive function and a longer life span. Work keeps us engaged and socially connected with others. It keeps us more technologically savvy and current with the world around us.
The good news is that a well-designed workplace with positive policies and programs to optimize the health of aging workers benefits everyone. When work stations and job tasks are matched to the capacity of each worker, younger or older, everyone benefits. When workplace flexibility is maximized, when work is organized with personal health and well-being principles in mind, and when workplace policies consistently are viewed through their health effects on workers, employers and workers both win. This is also a way for employers to exercise excellent foresight to support ongoing organizational health for their companies and indeed for the U.S. economy, as well as the individual worker’s well-being. By preventing stresses or injuries that, over time, can have cumulative negative effects on a worker’s ability to work safely and productively, an employer can help assure that the U.S. continues to have a capable, experienced workforce.
Many effective workplace solutions are simple, don’t have to cost very much, and can have large benefits if implemented properly with worker input and support throughout all levels of management. Below are strategies for preparing your workplace for an older and healthier, safer workforce. Consider putting these in place today.
- Prioritize workplace flexibility. Workers prefer jobs that offer more flexibility over those that offer more vacation days. To the extent possible, give workers a say in their schedule, work conditions, work organization, work location and work tasks.
- Match tasks to abilities. Use self-paced work, self-directed rest breaks and less repetitive tasks
- Avoid prolonged, sedentary work – it’s bad for workers at every age. Consider sit/stand workstations and walking workstations for workers who traditionally sit all day. Provide onsite physical activity opportunities or connections to low-cost community options.
- Manage noise hazards (including excess background noise), slip/trip hazards, and physical hazards, conditions that can challenge an aging workforce more.
- Provide ergo-friendly work environments — workstations, tools, floor surfaces, adjustable seating, better illumination where needed, and screens and surfaces with less glare.
- Utilize teams and teamwork strategies for aging-associated problem solving. Workers closest to the problem are often best equipped to find the fix.
- Provide health promotion and lifestyle interventions including physical activity, healthy meal options, tobacco cessation assistance, risk factor reduction and screenings, coaching, and onsite medical care. Accommodate medical self-care in the workplace and time away for health visits.
- Invest in training and building worker skills and competencies at all age levels. Help older employees adapt to new technologies, often a concern for employers and older workers.
- Proactively manage reasonable accommodations and the return-to-work process after illness or injury absences.
- Require aging workforce management skills training for supervisors. Include a focus on the most effective ways to manage a multi-generational workplace.
We’d like to hear your challenges and experiences related to aging in your workplace. What strategies and solutions have worked for you?
L. Casey Chosewood, MD
Dr. Chosewood is the Senior Medical Officer for Total Worker HealthTM at NIOSH
For more information on Total Worker HealthTM vist the NIOSH TWH Topic Page