Aging in the workplace

/ =309&Dtp=1&Fmt=5&TN=2&Uno=17Enlarge 400%Many physical changes associated with aging can affect productivity. Those that have been investigated include decreased cardiorespiratory functioning, reduced muscle strength and sensory deterioration. A decrease in cardiorespiratory functioning often leads to increased fatigue, according to a 1995 study. This can reduce productivity in older workers, who may be relegated to more physically demanding tasks if they lack technical skills for more cognitive tasks.

Deterioration of muscular strength has been implicated in the decline in productive work performance of industrial workers who must repeatedly lift heavy objects. Muscular endurance, however, has proven more difficult to assess. A 1991 study found that 80 percent of workers on disability in Holland were older than age 50, with nearly a third of cases due to musculoskeletal disorders. It is not surprising, therefore, that as workers employed for heavy physical labor get significantly older, their productivity declines.

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Although some studies now show that improved ergonomic designs in the workplace can ease problems accompanying decreased muscular strength, the most that can be offered at this time are proactive health and strength measures to delay the onset of decreased productivity. Another common age-related loss is sensory deterioration, such as vision, hearing and balance. The changes often progress subtly, countered by compensatory mechanisms that offset productivity declines until the very last stages of life. A 1988 study found that bus drivers who were 60-64 years old had better safety records and fewer accidents per year than any other age group. Much overlooked and little understood is the impact of social changes related to aging, such as becoming a caregiver to a spouse or parent while employed. According to a 1989 study, the proportion of older people who act as providers and/or caregivers for disabled family members increases after age 45, affecting 20 percent of the population by age 75. It is often cited as a major reason for retirement or decreased hours worked per year, especially for older women.

Familial caregiving responsibilities place a heavy burden of stress on the caregiver. Research has also found that chronic stress can reduce productivity on the job, requiring more days off, late arrivals, early departures and increased absenteeism. Based on the research findings presented above, and on many others, there is a consensus on four factors associated with work productivity and aging. 1.

Knowledge: Factual procedural knowledge relevant to the performance of one’s job appears to remain stable with age. 2. Skills: Physical or cognitive procedures acquired through experience are relevant to the performance of specific jobs and not adequately measured within standard laboratory assessments. 3. Abilities: General physical or cognitive abilities that set limits on the acquisition of knowledge or skills are relevant to functioning in novel situations.

4. Other: Miscellaneous factors affect job performance such as motivation, loyalty and morale. Research clearly indicates that with age only some abilities tend to decline and the job performance of older workers can remain stable despite deterioration in general physical and/or cognitive abilities. Where do we go from here? While most empirical research finds no significant association between age and job performance, older workers do require training and proactive general and physical health interventions to maintain maximum productivity. Replacing negative age-biased stereotypes with factual knowledge derived from empirical research from the fields of physical health, psychology and sociology have led to some effective suggestions and strategies aimed at recruiting and maintaining valuable, experienced and loyal older workers. As baby boomers gray and a “baby bust” sets in on the other end of the age spectrum, older employees will become increasingly more valuable and irreplaceable to industrialized nations. According to a year 2000 study, some tips for training older workers include: Provide brighter, more diffused lighting and reduce glare by using matte surfaces, both of which have been shown to be effective at speeding up tasks among workers over the age of 40; Use lower sound frequencies, in the range of the spoken voice, which are more easily heard by older people; Emphasize efficient work practices aimed at conserving energy; Encourage all workers to exercise and avoid sudden bursts of physical work that sap energy; Encourage older workers to focus on what they can do as opposed to what they can’t do.

Another study has identified situational, dispositional and institutional barriers to training older workers that must be addressed. Situational barriers include lack of information and money. For instance, older workers may not know of community-based training for jobs. And when training is available on site, managers who harbor negative stereotypes about older workers may fail to inform them of the opportunity. Paid time off for training and tuition reimbursement can go a long way toward encouraging older workers to take advantage of these opportunities.

Dispositional barriers are based in self-perceptions. In many cases, older workers not only believe negative stereotypes about their age but feel that the discrimination experienced as a result of those stereotypes is justified. Managers should actively encourage older workers to adopt a more positive self-perception to increase self-esteem and promote a positive attitude toward work. Institutional barriers include the use of logistically difficult policies and procedures for activities such as registration, gaining access to sites or scheduling.

Other institutional barriers include the failure to provide incentives for older workers to acquire new skills. Such barriers may encourage older workers to retire. One way to increase retention of older workers is to offer more flexibility in total hours worked. A 1993 study found that 24 percent of respondents to a health and retirement survey had the flexibility to work fewer hours at their current job. Nearly 14 percent wanted to decrease their hours but could not, and this group was more likely to retire at either age 62 or 65. According to another study, flexibility in hours required at work will become increasingly important to retaining older, more experienced workers.

Likewise, allowing a more gradual transition into retirement will become more important, other studies indicate. The more control workers feel they have regarding retirement decisions, the more likely they are to be satisfied and productive in their work. The state of current research investigating productivity among older workers suggests that given the right environment and management styles, older workers can be just as productive and valuable as younger workers-perhaps even more so. Retention of older workers needs to be a focus of company management as baby boomers move into traditional retirement age.

Their retention will most likely be crucial in maintaining a competitive edge in the workplace in the current and coming decades.