Workplace fit critical to senior employees’ health: study

HR must avoid stereotypes, emphasize values of mature workers
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/27/2019
Hands On Keyboard
A Rice University study is an important step towards understanding how to extend the careers of older workers, says psychology professor Margaret Beier. NemanjaMiscevic/Shutterstock

An appropriate workload and role can aid older workers’ health and well-being, while the opposite can have detrimental effects and lead to early retirement, according to a study.

When older workers’ reasoning abilities are well-matched with their job demands, they report fewer chronic health problems than when they can’t keep up, according to research from Rice University in Houston and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.

When unable to meet the demands of their role, the odds of retiring increase by 34 per cent, according to the study of 383 workers and retirees over age 51 — “Age and Job Fit: The Relationship Between Demands – Ability Fit and Retirement and Health.”

Researchers analyzed a series of surveys evaluating cognitive abilities and job demands, while participants were asked to report their retirement status and the prevalence of nine chronic health conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, lung disease, arthritis, emotional or psychiatric problems and memory-related diseases.

The study is an important step towards understanding how to extend the careers of older workers, says lead author Margaret Beier, a psychological sciences professor at Rice University.

“It’s not that older workers can’t do complex jobs and they can’t thrive in those environments,” she says. “It’s just that when their abilities aren’t matched to that job… we start seeing those negative outcomes.”

“When the abilities of the person are relatively greater than the ability demands of the job… for older workers, they report few health conditions in that case, and they also work longer.”

Mature workers can be a great benefit to organizations, says Beier.

“They may be suited for mentoring roles and emotionally challenging situations in a way that younger workers simply aren’t,” she says. “Knowledge is what older workers bring to the table; they have vast amounts of experience.”

Considering job design

Designing jobs where reasoning demands are realistic could help keep senior workers employed longer, says Beier.

“Where things need to be fast-paced and where people are reasoning through novel problems continuously, those might not be great jobs for older workers, if they don't have the skills to do them,” she says.

“The idea would be to focus on reducing those reasoning demands, potentially by designing jobs that really highlight and focus on what older adults bring to the table, which is knowledge… If you can design jobs correctly, you could extend the amount of time that a person engages in the workforce, and it would be a benefit to everybody.”

Maturing workers have unique workplace needs, says Eddy Ng, James and Elizabeth Freeman Professor of Management at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pa.

They are no longer motivated by workplace needs, but are rather seeking feelings of contribution and socialization, he says.

“From an older worker’s perspective, those things actually outweigh financial considerations. So, fit is really important,” says Ng. “When you stop working, you become lonely. But when you go to work, you get a lot of other benefits, as well.”

And with the modern workplace enduring rapid change with the arrival of artificial intelligence (AI), the experience of older workers could work wonders, he says.

“Older workers — having the benefit of life experience — they tend to bring a certain level of what I call a ‘reservoir of calmness.’ That sort of level of leadership and calmness is necessary in order for organizations to be able to navigate these rapid changes in the workplace.”

Fostering respect

While retaining mature workers’ experience through “knowledge transfer” is important, “knowledge exchange” may be the more appropriate term, says Ng.

“If you want older workers to be… advantageously employed, there are certain new skills that they need to acquire.”

Support is needed from both employers and younger workers, as millennials are rewriting the workplace rules, he says.

When a culture of mutual respect is fostered, mature workers will pass on experience in exchange for technological advice, says Ng.

To best support senior staffers, employers need to ensure that all workers’ perspectives are being considered in organizational policy. That is best completed by avoiding stereotypes and emphasizing the value and leadership capabilities of mature workers, he says.

“That’s really key to employers — to design workplace policies and foster a climate where older workers feel valued and respected.”

Citing examples of real estate and health care, many customers prefer dealing with older workers, says Ng.

“You want to emphasize that part, because with technology and AI infiltrating the workplace, we tend to like things that are shinier, faster… that is sort of the general perception people have.”

At present, generational differences remain an issue many employers do not yet fully understand, he says.

“Most policies, most practices, generally are uniform and created for the masses… This is a wake-up call for them to actually treat the workplace — in terms of policies and practices — to make sure that all workers can continue to contribute, they feel valued, and older workers value what employers provide to them.”

As the North American workforce ages, more attention is being given to older workers, says Beier.

“Organizations really are in a position where they could benefit from the expertise of older workers,” she says. “Older workers have a lot of experience just dealing with people; they have a lot of skills to bring to the table.”

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