Blog - How to support our aging workforce

Two workmen standing in a driveway wearing orange high viz vests and jeans, one is holding a spade Something that is often written and talked about these days is the fact that here in New Zealand, we have an aging workforce. This is due to the baby boomers all reaching what has traditionally been ‘retirement’ age in better shape. We have better healthcare and medical treatments available and quite simply, there are more boomers around to continue working.

Some of them have to continue working to create sufficient income, others do so simply because they can; they love their job and the sense of being valued, the routine of work, and being around their team mates.

The possible costs

I recently watched a webinar, based on American statistics on the aging workforce. Research from the US Bureau of Labour and Statistics showed that in 1994 around 10% of people in the workforce were over 55 years old. It is estimated that by 2024, at the current rate of growth, this figure will have increased to 33%. That’s a huge increase, so as these trends look set to continue, what do we need to do to ensure that everyone, including older members of the workforce, stays healthy?

It is known that as part of the normal aging process, we have higher health needs for conditions such as cardiac issues, arthritis, vision and hearing loss and that we take longer to recover from an injury.

Much of the reporting from the States is based on information related to healthcare costs, which I suspect, due to their insurance company coverage being tied in with employment, are more easily measured there than here. Here, while we have ACC to provide cover for accident and injury, one of the challenges with the system in terms of supporting an older working population is, that, as we age, and people can be shown to have ‘degeneration’ of their joints and bones for instance, some injuries are not always covered. This could present some interesting challenges in the years ahead, as degeneration can actually start in your 30s, and as shown above, there is going to be an increasing number of older workers over the next 20 years. And not everyone can afford to have health insurance, particularly those who work in more manual jobs.

The real advantages

The webinar highlighted many advantages of having older workers including:

  • There is no evidence of diminished cognitive abilities as we age
  • Productivity is on a par with younger workers
  • Older staff are loyal and committed
  • More emotionally stable

Create a culture of wellness

The most interesting take on the webinar for me is that successful employment of older workers was consistent with having good wellness programmes in place for all workers; in other words, creating a culture of wellness in your business.

Harvard School of Public Health carried out a Wellness Study in 2009, doing a meta analysis of research on workplace wellness programmes. They identified a 6:1 return on investment for businesses which had a workplace wellness programme in place. These findings have led to businesses in the States realising that wellness programmes need to be recognised as part of the overall strategic plan, rather than as a ‘nice to have’ addition to the business plan.

Implementing a programme which benefits the entire workforce, and improves company culture and employee morale affects all employees of any age

The key areas that were identified for a wellness programme, and in particular when employing older staff, are:

  1. Understanding the physical demands of the job ie, conducting a task analysis
  2. Choosing the right person for the job in terms of their physical, emotional, mental abilities
  3. Coaching them in the job to prevent injury in as such as safe lifting techniques, taking breaks, rotation of tasks
  4. Encouraging early reporting of injuries, however small, as this will result in quick resolution of the injury in most cases

So, the message seems to be loud and clear. Introduce a well thought out workplace wellness plan into your business, whatever its size, and you will see a reduction in injuries at all levels, an increase in staff commitment, loyalty, health and wellness at all levels. This will also place your business in a good space for working with an aging workforce, and making the most of their skills and abilities as active participants in our communities.