Healthy Aging at Work
Older workers experience fewer injuries at work than their younger counterparts
By 2015, one in every five American workers will be over 65 and in 2020, one in four American workers will be over 55, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although there is no consensus on the age at which workers are considered “older workers,” the aging workforce phenomenon is real: and global.
These demographic shifts have made the issue of healthier workers, especially those of advanced age, much more pressing. Vital to any workplace is the safety, health, and well-being of the workforce, especially as workers age.
Safety and Health Outcomes Associated with Aging and Work
Aging affects a variety of health conditions and outcomes, including both chronic health conditions and likelihood of on-the-job injury. However, the exact nature of these relationships has only recently been better understood, and it is quickly becoming clear that appropriate programs and support in the workplace, community, or at home can help workers live longer, more productive lives.
Chronic Conditions and Aging
Arthritis and hypertension are the two most common health conditions affecting older workers, impacting 47% and 44%, respectively, of workers over the age of 55. An even greater proportion of workers (more than 75%) are estimated to have at least one chronic health condition that requires management.
Diabetes is perhaps the most costly of these; one study found that one-third of all Medicare spending goes towards management of diabetes. The frequency of these conditions and others in older adults has important implications for workers’ ability to physically perform their duties. Higher morbidity means more absenteeism when an employee feels sick and more presenteeism when an employee is ill but shows up to work regardless.
However, individual health risk factors are a stronger influence on future healthcare-associated costs than advancing age alone. In comparing young workers with high risk of chronic disease (five or more risk factors) to older workers with few or no risk factors, the younger workers had significantly higher medical costs associated despite the disparity in the age groups: 19-34 year olds, versus older workers aged 65-74.
Safety and Aging
As for safety on the job, workers who are older actually tend to experience fewer workplace injuries than their younger colleagues. This may be because of experience gathered from years in the workplace, or because of factors such as increased caution and awareness of relative physical limitations. The caution is well-founded. When accidents involving older workers do occur, the workers often require more time to heal, underscoring the need for a well-planned return to work program. In addition, incidents affecting older workers are more likely to be fatal, underscoring the need for employers to be mindful of how best to adapt the conditions of work to protect workers as well as explore opportunities for preventative programs that can maintain or build the health of employees through their working life.
Benefits of an Age-Friendly Workforce
Employers increasingly see the value that older workers bring to the job. 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.
Workplaces, often out of necessity, have adapted to older workers. Both the Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit workplace discrimination based on age or disability, respectively, and support the retention of qualified workers despite limitations that may come from age or disability. However, some employers are more proactive than others, realizing that a well-designed, employee-centered approach to the physical nature and organization of work benefits all workers regardless of their age.
Workplace design, the flexibility of the work schedule, and certain ergonomic interventions increasingly focus on the needs of older employees. Many workplace accommodations are easy to make and are inexpensive. Modern orthotics, appropriate flooring and seating, optimal lighting, and new information technology hardware and software can smooth the way to continued work for older individuals. New emphasis on job sharing, flexible work schedules, and work from home can support added years in the job market for many. Although work may not be beneficial for all older persons, for many it is an important avenue to economic security, enhanced social interaction, and improved quality of life.
Simple Strategies for an Age-Friendly Workplace
Many effective workplace solutions are simple, don’t have to cost much, and can have big benefits if implemented properly with worker input and support throughout all levels of management.
Below are some strategies for preparing your workplace for a healthier, safer, and more age-friendly workforce:
- 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. Prolonged sedentary work is 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 hazards, including noise, slip/trip hazards, and physical hazards: conditions that can challenge an aging workforce more.
- Provide and design ergo-friendly work environments. Workstations, tools, floor surfaces, adjustable seating, better illumination where needed, and screens and surfaces with less glare.
- Use 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 on-site 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.
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