The Aging Workforce - Ergonomic Accommodations Benefit Experienced Employees

The Aging Workforce - Ergonomic Accommodations Benefit Experienced Employees
According to Caryn Leschen, “Thirty-five is when you finally get your head together and your body starts falling apart”. With foresight, planning, and a willingness to make accommodations for the physical changes that occur with advancing years, businesses can benefit from the wisdom and experience of their aging employees, maintain a consistently productive workforce, avoid costs of employee turnover, and remain competitive in their markets.

The current trend of a decline in the younger workforce and an increase in employees over the age of 40 is predicted to become even more significant in the near future (an older American worker is often defined as being over the age of 40-45). By 2010, more than 25% of the working population will reach retirement age resulting in a potential worker shortage of nearly 10 million (Bureau of Labor Statistics). By 2020, the number of people aged 55 and older is predicted to increase to 73% while the number of younger workers will grow by only 5% (U.S. Census Bureau). This labor shortage will significantly impact our economy. The oil, gas, energy, and healthcare industries are already expressing concerns about a loss of skilled workers; the National Science Foundation is also reporting a decline in those interested in entering the fields of science, mathematics and engineering. The Conference Board reports worries of a “brain drain” in the technology and pharmaceutical industries.

Fortunately for many corporations, a majority of the elderly are delaying retirement for personal, financial, medical and social reasons. According to the AARP, 69% of baby boomers plan to continue working past the age of 65. A study conducted by The Conference Board reports that 75% of respondents are choosing not to retire because of financial concerns. Some are delaying retirement due to changes in Social Security benefits; others may not have planned well for retirement or been affected by stock market fluctuations. 60% of respondents cited medical concerns as a reason for delaying retirement. As life expectancy improves (from 47 years in 1900 to the current 77 years) and health care costs continue to increase, working to retain medical benefits becomes more likely. And 54% cited personal fulfillment as a reason to stay active in the workforce. The desire to feel useful and valued, to perform activities that are of interest, and to maintain social contacts contributes to the decision to stay in a profession either full-time, part-time, or in an advisory capacity.

Physiological changes that occur with aging can make performing job tasks demanding. After the age of 40, changes in vision, hearing, strength, and fine motor dexterity become more likely. Because of these changes, elderly employees are frequently viewed as depleting a corporation’s resources. Research is showing that the opposite is often true.

There are many benefits for a company to retain or hire older employees. Mature workers are considered to be more flexible in their schedules, to have a stronger work ethic, to be more loyal and dependable, and to take work more seriously than their younger co-workers. The company profits from their experience; experienced employees serve as mentors to the younger generations. Retaining a skilled employee reduces the expense of staff turnover - costs which can range from 25-200 percent of an employee’s annual compensation (The American Management Association).

Company’s that are planning for a potential labor shortage will hire based on an employee’s ability to produce and contribute to the success of the business - not based on age. Ergonomic changes in the work environment can ease physical stressors and improve safety in employees who may notice a gradual decline in age-related physiological functions. The body can be comfortable and the head can excel.

This is Part 1 in a 3 part series. Part 2 will address the physiologic changes that occur after the age of 40 and discuss computer ergonomics that accommodate these changes. Part 3 will address ergonomics and safety considerations for the aging workforce in industry.

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