Over the past decade, America has seen a dramatic shift in the age of its population, resulting in a 49% increase in workers 45 to 55 years old and a dramatic reduction in the ratio of younger to older workers. That trend is only going to get more pronounced in the coming years. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 37% of respondents said they expect to work beyond age 65-up from only 22% in 2003 and 16% in 1995. Are employers prepared to effectively address the associated costs that come with this trend?
Organizations must look ahead and establish long-term strategies to adapt workplaces for aging workers, who often experience reduced functional capacities and increased health issues. These employees perform valuable work and have gained considerable experience on the job, making them real assets to a business. To preserve these resources and their long-term health, it is critical for employers to explore ageonomics, the science focused on the interaction of the aging worker and the work environment.
Challenges of Age at Work
Nearly half (44%) of the American workforce is 45 or older. While valuable and highly skilled, these workers are experiencing the effects of an aging physique and may be doing work that was designed for younger employees. Age brings decreased muscle strength, less dexterity, reduced fitness level and aerobic capacity, poorer visual and auditory acuity as well as slower cognitive speed and function. All of these changes can have a dramatic impact. For example, studies have found that loss of muscle mass begins at the age of 50, and becomes even more dramatic by age 60. Older workers are also at greater risk of disease and other ailments, including the increased risk of obesity with aging-associated diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Obesity appears to be an underlying and significantly complicating issue for older workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of the U.S. adult population is obese, increasing to 38% among Americans over 45. In the workplace, obesity contributes to slower reaction time and decreased range of motion, functional issues that can be linked to workplace injuries as well as numerous health conditions, including heart and pulmonary illnesses that can complicate healing from an injury. A Duke University study correlated the impact of these issues on lost workdays, workers compensation and healthcare claims. It found that overweight workers had 13 times as many lost workdays due to work-related injuries and that their medical claims were seven times higher.
Responding to Demographic Shift
The impact of the aging workforce varies greatly depending on the industry. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 55% of workers are 45 and older in agriculture and forestry, while older workers make up 26% of the leisure and hospitality industry.
Manufacturers, which have a workforce of which half are 45 or older, are taking the lead by rethinking their approach to the physical demands of the workplace. They are addressing associated issues with measures such as improved lighting and larger print on directions and warning labels. Other age-friendly modifications include adding highly visible colors to the edges of steps and raised platforms, and modifying equipment to accommodate reduced range of motion.
These simple but thoughtful measures can have an immediate impact. Experts advise, however, that employers must begin to think beyond accommodating physical capacity changes among workers. Employers should seek to gain a better understanding of the impact of cognitive issues and disease processes, noting their impact on total absence, in order to create a comprehensive, forward-thinking workplace aging strategy.
For example, since we know that muscle strength declines with age, organizations should consider implementing proactive safety, ergonomics and wellness programs to help build individual strength. Further, organizations ought to consider reducing manual lifting that fatigues the aging worker, potentially resulting in injury or absence.
Putting a Strategy in Place
A workplace aging strategy requires cooperation among departments that typically operate in silos, such as safety, ergonomics, benefits, wellness and human resources, to align their strategies to meet the needs of the aging worker. When each program is assessed and refined for these workers, the company can develop strategies that optimize their performance.
For example, a study presented at the 2009 International Conference on Applied Economics found a direct correlation between increased workload and increased sick time among nurses. In health care and social assistance, researchers have established that musculoskeletal disorders comprise 42% of cases and have a rate of 55 cases per 10,000 full-time workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this rate was 56% higher than the rate for all private industries and second only to the transportation and warehousing industry. As more than half of U.S. nurses are age 50 or older, conducting a workplace aging strategy assessment for the organization may be an important part of a program to help reduce sick leave, workers compensation injuries and overall absenteeism. Solutions should not be one-dimensional, such as simply purchasing patient handling equipment and hoping that will fully remedy the situation. Strategies should include a thorough review of programs, encompassing the total health and well-being of the worker for optimal success.
The aging of America’s workforce presents a compelling reason for risk management, safety, human resources and benefits professionals to work together. Simple and cost-effective solutions exist, but long-term, more comprehensive strategies are critical to respond to a dramatically aging workforce. Organizations must not only begin to understand the issues and costs related to these workers, but also act on these issues to help save their employees and their bottom line.