Companies tend to have a negative view of workers who pass the 50-year mark. In the business context, the most frequent concern associated with older workers is productivity in relation to costs, i.e. that the performance of older workers might stagnate while their salary continues to rise, or that their performance diminishes even though their salary increases. In both cases, loss of competences has often been put forward as the reason behind reduced productivity. Other disadvantages often attributed to these workers are the high cost of their salaries, the costs incurred by the company if these older workers are let go, and their purported resistance to change; older workers are also attributed with inadequate or obsolete training, lack of functional mobility, low motivation, resistance to geographic mobility, hindering the promotion of their younger subordinates, loss of physical capacity and higher rates of absenteeism. However, although such beliefs are very widespread, there exists little objective, empirical evidence that corroborates them.
In many cases, these beliefs result in an older worker being considered for a potential early retirement and replaced by a younger worker without acquired rights. Yet this practice is increasingly criticized in social, political and economic spheres, because it converts experienced employees into inactive persons, and it promotes job abandonment by workers who, in many cases, are actually in better conditions (physically, mentally and in terms of experience) than younger workers.
However, demographic evolution (which shows a tendency to invert the age pyramid) and changes such as the increase in the legal age of retirement or the suppression of fiscal and Social Security incentives that encourage workers to accept voluntary cessation of activity, will have repercussions on the active population, increasing the proportion of older workers in the companies and decreasing that of younger workers.
So it is very important for companies to assess the impact that these tendencies might have on productivity and the retention of older workers and programs aimed at ensuring active and healthy ageing at the workplace should certainly be implemented.
The ageing process is influenced by various combined factors. The environment is one of them. A work environment that is safe and healthy at the physical, mental, social and organizational levels, that promotes and protects workers’ health, that heightens their competences and empowers them as individuals, that reinforces their commitment to the company and is conducive to a positive attitude towards staying in the job, will lead to better performance and productivity and job retention in older workers, who will enjoy better health, quality of life and satisfaction on the job.
In this regard, one very worthwhile task is to design job adaption strategies that can be applied as workers grow older. These strategies must seek to create work environments that are favorable for older workers. Here are a few examples:
- measures that support physical and physiological health, so as to guarantee better performance and reduce absenteeism.
- initiatives that adapt the physical conditions or functions of each job to the needs of the workers, in accordance with their age.
- actions that facilitate the adaptation of learning processes to the needs of these workers, thus avoiding the obsolescence of their skills and motivating them towards greater personal and professional development.
- measures that facilitate the transition to retirement by means of different forms of flexible work.
- initiatives aimed at preparing retirement (financial planning, health, leisure activities, etc.).
- actions that favor inclusivity, based on increasing awareness and acknowledging the value that older workers bring to the company.
- actions that facilitate non-conflictive generational replacement within the company.
A possible solution: making active ageing part of the management of health and safety at the workplace.
Companies usually have regulations regarding the management of health and safety at work, the purpose of which is to promote and maintain the highest possible degree of health and safety at the workplace. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) the question of safety and health at the workplace refers to the social, mental and physical well-being of the workers, and thus encompasses the individual as a whole. This tool, which is designed within the company’s work relations framework but generally does not address the progressive ageing of workers, can be used as the foundations for specific measures with which to promote active ageing.
Questions to consider
- Does your organization’s activity to promote workplace health include aspects related specifically to the ageing of workers?
- Does your organization’s ongoing training activity promote workplace health throughout the workers’ careers?
- Are there any special mechanisms and measures aimed at adapting the job or the tasks to be performed to older workers’ capacities (including those related to health)?
- Are your organization’s actions to promote workplace health based on regular and timely analysis of the data available about workers’ health, especially in older workers?
An example of best practice (United Kingdom)
From June 2014, all employees in the UK were given the “right to request” flexible working. This does not mean that everyone has the right to work flexibly, rather that everyone can request it and expect their employer to consider such requests “in a reasonable manner.” Flexible working can potentially include a wide range of working practices. Employees may, for example, request a change in working hours, working time or work location. They could propose new working patterns including job sharing, working from home, part time working, flexible working or any other formula which might make it possible or more convenient for them to balance work and other needs. Flexible working might allow an individual to be an active, caring grandparent or support someone who wishes to step gradually into retirement. The individual’s reasons for wishing to work flexibly might be well founded or relatively trivial – it makes no difference to their right for their request to be considered.
The HR professional body, the CIPD is currently leading a UK Government task force to promote wider understanding of inclusive flexible work. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, an independent advisory and conciliation body ACAS, has issued some guidance to employers on handling requests for flexible working.
However, there is no such thing as a best practice model that can be copied “as is” to different contexts. Each company must define its own measures for adapting jobs based on the demographic data, interests and needs of its employees.