The Workforce is Aging. Are We Ready?
If you were thinking that in this column I would be dealing with a topic that hits pretty close to home, you would be correct. The 76 million baby boomers (a group to which I reluctantly admit being a part) are growing older and most of us are still in the workforce. In 2006, Roselyn Feinsod from Towers Perrin wrote in World at Work Journal: "The possible workforce scenarios predicted to play out during the next five to 10 years range from demographic doomsday (i.e., severe labor shortages because of baby boomer retirements) to a soft landing (i.e., minimal workforce disruptions as the boomers continue working past traditional retirement age)."
It is now 2011 and the economic conditions have not substantially improved. I think we can safely predict that most of us (myself included) will choose a later retirement age and therefore remain in the workforce for a while in order to feel more secure about our financial futures. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that by 2025, which no longer seems that far off, more than 20 percent of the workforce will be over the age of 55. So what does this mean for us?
The Challenges of an Aging Workforce
Many of us in our industry can attest to the significant and mostly unwelcome physical changes associated with aging. The medical community tells us that as we age, we tend to lose muscle mass and flexibility, and our joints and spine naturally deteriorate. Accompanying these changes is a 15 percent to 20 percent decrease in strength. Age affects our vision, hearing and our balance. It has been said that when we age some of our systems slow down, while others lose their fine tuning. (I would certainly agree that I am no longer finely tuned). And then there are increased chances for co-morbidities, something we are used to dealing with and paying for in our industry. In a September Risk & Insurance® article, "Grey Zone Drugs Cloud Workers' Compensation Picture," Tron Emptage, pharmacist and chief clinical officer at Progressive Medical, said, "Workers are getting older and that means they are more at risk for diabetes, hypertension and other age and weight related diseases, and those conditions are creeping into workers' compensation, as well as causing potential problems for medication use."And last but not least, as we age, we recover from illness and injuries at a slower pace than the younger generation.
The Positives Associated with an Aging Workforce
Not surprising to many of us baby boomers, there are many positive attributes of an aging workforce. The motivation to work and the engagement in a job increases with age. Given the lack of engagement of younger workers, one has to consider the cost of turnover, which includes the cost of employee departure and the cost of adding new employees, in a younger workforce. Research suggests that forced retirement programs replacing older, more experienced, more knowledgeable -- and yes, more expensive -- workers with young, inexperienced and cheaper labor may not be the most cost-effective approach. The increased motivation as well as the experience, enhanced skills, maturity and the acquired knowledge of older workers far outweighs the many challenges that accompany the aging process. Score one for the baby boomers!
Can we manage the challenges presented by an aging workforce while also benefiting from the significant performance advantages they provide?
First, it is time to ensure that we have job descriptions with detailed physical requirements for all of our jobs. If strength, flexibility and/or balance are a potential issue, work tasks need to be examined to ensure that modifications are made where possible, assistive tools and equipment are provided and there are frequent breaks or limits to the amount of time a worker can spend on a particularly heavy or strenuous task.
Second, employers and their loss-control partners need to enhance safety and prevention programs to begin to address the challenges of the aging employee population. For example, I understand (and personally experience) that a person aged 55 or older generally requires eight times the amount of light to see as clearly as a 20-year-old. Employers need to examine the current workplace lighting and upgrade it as necessary. Given the age-related physical deterioration and the slower recovery process mentioned above, preventing slips and falls at the workplace becomes even more critical.
But perhaps most important is an employer's focus on the "whole employee." Every article I read on our aging population speaks to the ability to minimize the effects of aging by healthful living. Combining safety-and-prevention programs with wellness programs has never really caught on, however there is no time like the present to make this happen. Smoking cessation, weight loss, exercise programs and nutritional programs can make a huge difference in the health of older workers and lower their propensity for workplace or non-workplace injuries or illnesses.
At the November National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference in Las Vegas, you will get to extend your congratulations to the first company to receive the new PreVent Award: Honda Manufacturing of Indiana. This award is meant to "recognize a truly innovative organization that has evolved beyond 'reactive' accident reduction tactics, and embodies a proactive injury prevention philosophy and culture, extending far beyond traditional safety and loss control programs." I was honored to be able to read and evaluate the candidates for this award and there were several outstanding programs that combined safety and prevention with an employee wellness approach. I took special notice of Honda's "whole person" approach, its two-week work-conditioning program prior to beginning assembly work at the plant, a daily morning stretch program, and a "move smart" training program designed to teach employees leverage and balance to better position themselves for pushing, pulling, twisting and lifting. Honda's results speak for themselves and indicate that the company will be better able to deal with the aging workforce. Some of the other outstanding programs with a "whole person" approach to safety and prevention were University of California-Irvine, Silverado, Volkswagen and JELD-WEN. Learning more about how these companies developed these programs, overcame obstacles and achieved results would be a good first step in your preparation for the enhancement of your safety-and-prevention program and for our inevitably aging workforce.
I know that personally a long, brisk walk every morning (outside or on a treadmill) prior to heading to my office (remember I am a reluctant baby boomer) helps me both physically and psychologically prepare for the workday. Clearly others are beginning to realize that some form of regular stretching and/or exercise, and other healthful behaviors would make a difference to their employees and the safety of their environment.
The question now is what can you
do to prepare yourself, your company and/or your customers to reap the benefits of this older and wiser workforce?
MADDY BOWLING is a principal of Maddy Bowling Consulting Inc.
November 3, 2011
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