Tips for working with an aging workforce

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Is your workforce graying? Here’s how to work with them

If you have an aging workforce, you know how valuable their knowledge and experience are. At the same time, health concerns begin to creep into our graying years, which can disrupt your workflow if you’re not prepared. We’ve compiled many HR and workers’ compensation expert opinions to bring you top considerations for helping your aging workers stay healthy and productive.

Here’s the situation: We’re all living longer, thanks to advances in modern medicine. Couple with this positive fact is a negative one: Most baby boomers haven’t adequately prepared for retirement. That means they’re working longer. Some are healthy and vigorous and can work long hours, even into their early 70s. Others prefer to go part-time, to help supplement their income.

To further complicate things, not only are the oldest baby boomers in their 70s, but the oldest Gen Xers are now in their mid-50s, nearing retirement age as well. The good news is, according to a Property Casualty 360 article, these two groups of older workers are growing at a time “when the rate of younger workers in the workforce, ages 25 to 54, is actually shrinking.”

Benefits of an aging workforce

The benefits to having older workers on your staff are their industry and company knowledge and skills, lower turnover and positive work ethic, says AMAXX in a blogpost on aging. Serving as team leads and mentors for new workers, their long-range view of your company and industry (due to long-time experience) can help fuel company growth. In spite of cognitive decline that often comes with aging, the Property Casualty 360 article pointed to a 2013 study from North Carolina State University showing that older computer programmers know as much or even more than younger colleagues about recent software platforms.

That’s the upside. The downside is that an aging workforce faces issues inherent to getting older. As you might expect, everyone ages differently, thanks to genetics and life experience. Typical changes include declining strength, agility and flexibility; also, vision, hearing and cognitive skills. Older workers can experience more issues in their knees, backs and shoulders. As their employer, you need to be aware of their challenges.

Older workers tend to experience fewer injuries on the job – but “they generally take longer to heal,” the AMAXX article explained. “Savvy employers know they must take steps to address changes related to the aging process.”

The average claim cost is 73 percent higher for workers over 45, said Property Casualty 360, pointing to a study by Safety National Casualty Corporation. Why? The aging process interferes with healing, slowing down recovery from surgery, wounds or broken bones. Side effects from medications and chronic health conditions can also act as roadblocks to healing.

How to manage an aging workforce

Now that we’ve completed a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) of an older workforce, let’s look at the tactics we gleaned from several aging experts to help you provide the best work environment not only for your aging workers, but for your entire team.

Before we begin listing tips, remember this: You don’t want to single out older employees for health-related changes without raising the specter of discrimination, so be inclusive in the changes you make. AMAXX also suggested getting input from your employees as to changes they’d like to see. Working day in and day out in their environment, it’s easier for them to spot and suggest helpful alterations to the workplace.


1. Launch a wellness program

Introduce a wellness program and encourage participation. Typical programs include incentives to stop smoking, limit drinking and make healthier food choices. Consider adding exercise or yoga options, annual physicals and other programs that address specific needs of older workers. These can significantly impact your medical costs: Quoting a Harvard University study, Property Casualty 360 said that for every $1 spent on wellness, medical costs decreased by about $3.27.

Offer annual physicals in conjunction with your local clinic. These serve to raise health issues to the worker, helping him or her address these concerns and work to make improvements. As their employer, when you’re made aware of growing issues, you can work with them to alter tasks or worksites to aid their health.


2. Make worksite changes

Clear out trip hazards. Enact and enforce a policy to toss clutter immediately. Don’t let empty boxes, trash and other debris build up, particularly in walkways. Remove or secure any electrical cords that create a fall hazard.

Light the way. Is your lighting adequate for work surfaces, and reaching clearly to the floor? You may need to add overhead, spot lighting or task lights to help senior workers perform well. AMAXX suggested painting contrasting colors on steps, ramps, or floor breaks so they’re easily seen.

Make their footsteps secure. Ensure that flooring is kept dry. Use mats wherever wet weather may be tracked inside and wherever liquids are used, i.e. kitchens, breakrooms and bathrooms. If you have work areas where floors are often greasy or slippery, add mats or slip-resistant shoes for workers. Where might you need additional handrails?

Related: Best practices for reporting workplace incidents


3. Rotate job tasks

Flex schedules and tasks. Since repetitive motion can cause long-term injuries, build into employees’ schedules the ability to change their tasks during the day. This will help balance the loads on workers’ bodies, said AMAXX, and ensure no one handles strenuous tasks for too long. Add in more frequent – but shorter – breaks, to allow the body to rest from the repetition.


4. Build in flexibility

Offer workplace flexibility, if your business can allow it. By this we mean work hour flexibility (such as reduced hours, seasonal, job sharing and phased retirement), work schedule flexibility (compressed work week, flex schedule to help with caring for elderly parents or grandkids), career flexibility (job change, change in responsibilities or tasks, moving to project work or working as a consultant) and location flexibility (i.e., remote work).


5. Balance supporting older workers with your business goals

Help your managers support their workers, regardless of age, yet also maintain your business goals. Encourage your supervisors to provide set routines for older workers and give clear instructions for new tasks. Ensure everyone receives the training needed for new functions. Aligning your training methods with older workers’ learning styles will go a long way to helping them master new techniques, skills and software.


6. Assess your claims process and costs

Modify your projected costs for seniors. Based on the age range of your workforce, you may need to build in additional costs and time for healing and rehabilitation. You may see more and longer medical leave requests. Make sure early evaluations pinpoint which injuries may require protracted medical attention and leave time.

Related: Workplace Safety Incentives: Stop Accidents Before They Start


7. Modify your return-to-work program

Knowing that seniors typically take longer to heal, you may need to adjust your return-to-work plan for light duty and modified duty. Property Casualty 360 suggests offering recovering senior workers the option to take on a leadership or mentoring role which will take advantage of their knowledge and skills without actually having to perform any physical work. This in turn cuts down on loss time and workers’ benefit payments.

Related: Five pillars of a successful return-to-work program


8. Create a workplace culture that celebrates age diversity

Celebrate the strengths of both younger and older workers. Acknowledge that workers at both ends of the spectrum (and in the middle) may have prejudices about workers of different ages. Draw on the skills and knowledge of both young and old in your team meetings.


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