As of 2015, 20% of the American workforce is age 65 or older. By 2020, 25% will be over the age of 55. Although there’s no consensus on when exactly workers are considered “old,” it is very true that the percentage of older employees is expected to rise in the coming decades. American workers are retiring later now than ever before, especially among those with higher levels of education.
Older workers have historically been excluded from the conversation, considered less efficient than their younger counterparts. But this is not a fair depiction; older workers tend to be better to work with in part thanks to their years of prior experience and how careful they are at work.
Wellness programs and workplace programs overall must address the needs of older workers. How does your workplace foster productive aging and work? Do your workplace programs focus on improved health and safety outcomes for your aging workforce? How can you accomplish these goals?
What is productive aging?
Productive aging is an approach that focuses on the positive aspects of growing older. Individuals can make significant contributions to their own lives, communities, and society overall. Everyone ages, and older people are still a valuable part of their communities. In the workplace, the productive aging approach aims to provide a safe, healthy work environment that allows employees of all ages to perform their best.
Kristin Tugman, senior director of health and productivity at the disability insurance provider Unum, advocates the need for productive aging programs. As she explains, workers age 55 to 65 “are the fastest-growing component of the workforce. They represent significant skills and experience. Employers don’t want to lose this expertise.”
NIOSH has reported on the many benefits older workers bring:
Older workers have greater institutional knowledge and usually more experience. They often possess more productive work habits than their younger counterparts. They report lower levels of stress on the job, and in general, they get along better with their coworkers. Finally, they tend to be more cautious on the job and more likely to follow safety rules and regulations.
Did you know that older workers actually suffer fewer injuries than their younger colleagues? They are also the most highly educated group of workers, as those with lower levels of education tend to retire earlier. Many older workers are choosing to work longer. How does your company fit the needs of these workers?
How can you improve safety and health outcomes for your aging workforce?
You will want to provide workplace and wellness programs that address the unique needs of your aging workforce. How can you improve your work environment to minimize accidents and maximize the value your workers bring? The following strategies will help:
- Foster a culture of health. The most holistic approach is to improve the overall environment of your company. Promote a healthy lifestyle – encourage healthy eating, enough exercise, and minimized stress. Provide onsite wellness programs (they should include components specific to older employees), time for healthcare visits, and help with quitting bad habits.
- Provide ergo-friendly work environments and avoid prolonged, sedentary work. Chairs and desks need to be designed for complete comfort and support so as to minimize the pain workers endure. Prolonged sitting has become an epidemic, and offering standing desks and encouraging frequent movement will help reduce the negative effects of prolonged desk work. Programs such as DORN’s onsite treatment therapy help eliminate chronic pain, and the stretches we teach help prevent future pain.
- Manage chronic conditions. Arthritis, diabetes, and other chronic conditions that are more prevalent in older workers should be addressed. One third of all American workers have at least one chronic condition, and the percentage is higher among older workers. Provide help for these conditions.
- Manage hazards. You already provide precautions and conditions to protect your workers, but keep in mind that older workers will benefit from additional hazard management. Consider whether they are more likely to slip or fall, or whether noise may affect them more.
- Consider ability, training, and work flexibility. When assigning work, be sure the tasks match the abilities of your workers. Aging workers may not have the physical abilities that younger ones have; aim to use their brain more than their brawn. Always provide proper training for all work duties – this will ensure that your employees know the safest ways to complete their work. Older workers may also benefit from extra training with new technologies. Teamwork can be beneficial when you have workers of a range of ages. Offer workplace flexibility, allowing employees to have some say in their schedule, work conditions, and tasks.
- Ensure that supervisors are prepared to work with a multigenerational team. Your upper level employees need to know how to work with all workers, whether they are Millennials or Baby Boomers. Each age group will have different needs, limitations, and benefits. Know how to work with each generation and their working together.
- Review your return-to-work process. Although older workers tend to suffer fewer workplace injuries, they often need more time to heal from injuries and accidents. Make sure you have a quality return-to-work process in place that will work for your aging workforce.
The American workforce is aging, and it will be vital for all companies to foster productive aging and work in the coming years. Look at your company and wellness programs: Do they meet the needs of your older workers? Do your culture of health and return-to-work programs address the conditions of an aging workforce? These tips will help you move forward with your aging workforce. You can also look to organizations like NCPAW (the National Center for Productive Aging and Work) for more information.