Changing Dynamics: Accommodating Aging Workers

July 7, 2016

Changing Dynamics: Accommodating Aging Workers

This is the first of a four-part series looking at the dynamics of today’s workforce and how demographic shifts are impacting the workplace. In this article, we explore the challenges a graying workforce presents to employers, and how companies can proactively develop plans to accommodate this growing segment.

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The workforce is graying.

More than a quarter of workers will be age 55 or over by 2022, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' projections1, and many workers are delaying retirement until their 70s.2 This means more seniors than ever in the workforce.

And they have a lot to contribute, including valuable institutional knowledge. The majority of employers—77 percent—surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management and SHRM Foundation say that older workers tend to have more knowledge and skills than younger employees. They’re viewed as more mature or professional, with a stronger work ethic.3

However, to enable older employees to work at full production may require some accommodations, from flexibility in their work arrangements to physical changes to their work environment. Savvy companies are proactively reevaluating their human resources policies and procedures to address the workplace needs of older workers.

Recognizing Physical Factors

A subset of older workers will experience age-related challenges. Managers must learn to recognize physical problems facing older workers and find reasonable accommodations.

For example, many people’s hearing and vision decline as they age. Tools to keep productivity high can be as simple as headsets to amplify phone conversations or larger computer monitors.

Some companies, such as Swiss retailer Migros Geneva, have pursued an even more progressive path to accommodating older workers.4

Migros Geneva provides age-targeted training for all employees. An older cashier might switch to a customer service position, for example. The firm’s size allows workers to transfer among jobs, even changing stores if necessary, in order to keep working. All employees earn an extra week of vacation once they hit 50, a way to acknowledge their changing health needs. Their approach has paid off: Migros Geneva boasts a workforce with 25 percent of workers over age 50.

Flexibility to Balance Work-Life Responsibilities

While companies usually understand the productivity impact from employees with young children, that doesn’t always extend to older employees. Often older workers care for spouses, as well as parents, siblings and even grandchildren.

Flexible work arrangements can help older employees not only accommodate their own needs but also the needs of their dependents. Working from home, or working fewer hours per week, can help. This flexibility can be particularly helpful in industries like health care that face talent shortages and high turnover.

A case in point is Scripps Healthcare in San Diego.5 The organization offers flextime, compressed work schedules, job sharing and telecommuting. Full-time employees can move to part-time work on a permanent or temporary basis. Older employees can participate in a formal phased retirement program where they work part-time while tapping into their retirement fund for a full-time salary.

They also offer benefits like long-term insurance for spouses and babysitter benefits for grandchildren, ensuring their older workers can care for their families. The payoff: Thirty-nine percent of company employees are over age 50, and many will remain with Scripps until age 65, at least.

The Link Between Mental Health and Productivity

Older workers are not cognitively less able than their younger colleagues. In fact, they draw on a broader array of experiences, which allows them to react more quickly and with better outcomes than their more cognitively nimble younger counterparts.6

However, declining mental health and changes in executive functioning are some of the most difficult challenges faced by older workers. Particularly distressing is the onset of dementia. Aside from memory loss, other warning signs include difficulty with new tasks, personality changes, inappropriate behavior at times, or becoming agitated. A lot of employers are in awkward situations. They see employees faltering, but they’re nervous to mention it. They’re dancing around it.

In instances like these, EAP employee assistance program) resources can be instrumental in helping both the company and the employee. EAP consultants can work with human resources and managers to coach them and provide guidance on how to discuss symptoms with the employee in a nonjudgmental manner.

Consultants can also ask questions that employers are afraid to ask internally. You can’t ask "why aren’t you remembering this?" It’s very tricky. An EAP consultant can help get a diagnosis and assist in tapping resources that aid the employee in getting the help he or she needs. The consultant may review benefits with an employee or schedule a conference with a financial planner. The idea is to provide the employee with access to many resources so they can consider options.

Without such guidance, an individual may be terminated or left to flounder unproductively, to the frustration of everyone. In some cases, the employee has been encouraged to go into retirement in a dignified way, which is a much more positive and affirming approach then inaction or progressive discipline. Other times companies place a worker with a mentor or keep them on as a consultant; both strategies help the employee face age-related changes with dignity.

Supporting Workers and Business Goals

Managers need help to learn how to support older employees while still maintaining business goals. Managers should use set routines and provide clear instructions. For example, identify essential technology for successful job performance, then make sure all employees receive adequate training and support for it. Keep in mind that gearing training initiatives to older workers’ learning styles will ensure they master new information.

The graying of the workforce presents challenges, both for employers and aging workers. The right support and services offer a path to maintain productivity—and opportunity to retain experienced workers who have years of valuable service left.

References

1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2014/ted_20140124.htm

2 “2013/2014 Global Benefit Attitudes Survey;” Towers Watson. http://www.agingworkforcenews.com/2014/03/survey-tower-watson-shows-more-workers.html

3 “Preparing for an Aging Workforce;” Society for Human Resource Management. http://www.shrm.org/Research/SurveyFindings/Documents/14-0765%20Executive%20Briefing%20Aging%20Workforce%20v4.pdf

4http://ilo.org/global/publications/magazines-and-journals/world-of-work-magazine/articles/WCMS_170533/lang–en/index.htm

5 “2013 AARP Best Employers Best Employers for Workers Over 50;” AARP. http://www.aarp.org/work/employee-benefits/best_employers/

6 “Anticipating The Aging Workforce: Turn The Aging Of America Into A Competitive Advantage;” Forrester Consulting; 2011.

The Authors: 

Randy Martin, Ph.D., is director of the employee assistance program for Humana Wellness, where he oversees HRI's (Harris Rothenberg International) clinical department, consisting of intake EAP counselors, face-to-face counselors, and management consultants.

Comments (1)

excellent article I am a part-time CM for Humana and over 55 . agree with everything in the article. Many companies view older worker as costing too much and want them to retire instead of seeing their value. I've visited families where they are caring for two generations and working over 60.