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The New Workforce

Effective strategies can keep older employees happier, healthier and more productive.

While examining patterns of employees' lost time in his company, Kenneth Mitchell, PhD, found that the majority of those on long-term disability were older than 40.

"This led us to believe that we better begin paying attention to this group," says Mitchell, vice president of the return-to-work programs for UnumProvident Corp. in Chattanooga, Tenn. "So we started to explore even more--looking at the boomer age group--and decided to look at this in a much more in-depth way to understand the trends, influence drivers, etc."

Understanding older workers

Therefore, Mitchell undertook the lead role in a study examining the aging American workforce and the potential health and productivity predicaments that are beginning to demand the attention of employers. First, Mitchell validated his intuition that people are wanting, as well as needing, to work beyond the once-accepted retirement age of 65.

"[Due to] life expectancy, we are no longer saving for retirement, but for longevity," Mitchell explains. "Historically, it was decided that Social Security was awarded at 65, but the average age of that person is 67."

And, according to Mitchell, instead of working two to three years post-retirement, Americans are now staying on the clock 10 to 15 years post retirement.

The need to continue working, he explains, comes from the changes many companies are now making to pension programs and financial support after retirement. "People are going to retire and then have to go back to work," he says.

Secondly, the study allowed Mitchell to finally put his finger on the types of major impairments that aging workers experience. While he had expected to find cardiovascular disease to be at the top of the list, he wasn't too surprised to find that it was actually musculoskeletal impairments that came out on top.

"As we get older, the musculoskeletal types of impairments--whether arthritis-related or other types--are encroaching on people's ability and functional capacity," Mitchell says.

Cancer, he adds, is also a driver of the need for long-term disability, and will be important in the future.

Collaborative solutions

With a better understanding of why older workers are ignoring retirement and how that is affecting the use of short- and long-term disability, Mitchell can now advise employers as to how they can best prepare for and provide for baby boomers who are choosing to work longer. He has comprised the following collaborative solutions that can be applied within industries that recognize workers who are older than 50 as a critical part of their current and future workforce.

"This series of steps will help employers to maintain the employee[s] and their productivity," explains Mitchell. "These steps are what we think are very basic, sequential efforts to do the right thing, and employers can pick out the ones that seem to have the most value."

Step 1. Identify and reduce risk factors within the older work force. The cost of poor health and aging is influenced through timely risk management.

"As you get older, some things get broken," Mitchell says. "If you keep risk factors down for things such as diabetes and hypertension, you can keep the person healthier."

According to Mitchell, an employee can be impaired but still be healthy. "We ask employers to be a good partner in helping the employee manage the risk."

Step 2. Develop and apply corporate policies that invite and reward worksite flexibility and accessibility.

Mitchell recommends that employers develop policies and practices that keep the worksite flexible, "so people can adjust to common impairments that may be cyclic."

Step 3. Reward employees for accepting responsibility for personal well-being and protecting work capacity.

"There should be incentives and rewards for employees to accept that responsibility. It is just good, basic human resource practice to reward people, not punish them, for good behavior."

For example, Mitchell suggests offering discounts for fitness programs and monetary incentives in terms of reducing their health care costs through lowering health-risk factors.

Step 4. Provide incentives for continued productivity by supporting services to reduce the impact of complex family barriers to staying productive.

This step is an important one in terms of support systems, Mitchell says. "In an ancillary project, we recently found that when a person takes off to care for a family member, about 10 percent of them file their own disability claim within six months of taking that [FMLA] leave. It may be related to back injury or another type of injury, but also to a stress-related claim."

Considering that the boomer generation is going to be taking care of both their kids and their parents, he explained that it is important that employers create work-life balances that support elder care.

Step 5. Apply corporate resources to measure the impact of productive aging programs and the subsequent return on investment.

This step, says Mitchell, is to remind employers to monitor and measure the impact of the programs. "Evaluate that they are doing the right thing--keeping people working--and measure the impact of what is going on," he explains.

Step 6. Offer programs within the organization that promote generational equity in protecting productivity. Reduced productivity is not an older-worker issue, but an all-worker issue.

"[Employers] are going to have a different type of generational mix. In the past, the younger group has been the larger group, but that is going to reverse and is going to change the balance of human resources, workplace diversity, intergenerational activities, etc."

Workplaces are seeing a rather large increase in age-related complaints of discrimination in the last five years. "There is now a heightening of issues and sensitivity to ageism," Mitchell says. "And there is now paradoxical ageism--younger employees are going to complain that the older guys are getting the jobs; the older group and the younger group both feel at a disadvantage now."

These ageism issues will be a struggle for human resource managers. "It comes down to the ultimate capacity to bring the groups together."

Decreasing health issues

In order to lessen the occurrence of health-related issues in older workers, Mitchell first recommends that employers figure out exactly who their older employees are and what they are contributing.

"Be aware of the types of lost time they are experiencing and what types of health issues are occurring," Mitchell advises. "By doing that you get the employees to the right type of care."

To begin this process, he points employers in the direction of heath-risk appraisals and other tools such as lost-time tracking. "They can then build programs around that."

To do so, Mitchell advises that employers determine whether older employees have gravitated to certain departments and why. "We have passed the Workers Comp area for older workers; they are merging into safer jobs." Programs instead may need to focus on the area of short-term disability.

Secondly, employers need to create transitions out of work and back to work. "That sets the groundwork for moving a person to a transition through retirement. What often happens is that a person makes adjustments in the workplace themselves; but the company isn't making adjustments, so it looks like they are slacking."

Therefore, Mitchell suggests that employers look at transitions that will help get the person healthy and back into a transition job.

"Or if they are having a chronic health problem, help them to transition out of work without retiring right away or going on disability," he adds.

Jessica LaGrossa is on staff at ADVANCE.

Articles Archives

Ms. Lagrossa--
I enjoyed your most recent article in Advance regarding Helicopter Parenting. If you can email me, I had a request for you.

E. Forman

e formanJuly 24, 2008

I found the article very interesting and helpful knowing that I as a middle aged person, soon to return to the work force will not have as tough a time as I once thought, since there are more older people working and people are recognizing our strengths and not consider older workers a burden.

Melissa CampbellMarch 24, 2008
Omaha, NE


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