We're Working Longer: Are We Working Safer?


Are the rules for retirement age changing? And if so, is this a bad thing? Well, the data points to a resounding “YES” when we try and pinpoint a retirement age. The days of employees automatically dropping out of the workforce when they reach a threshold, say 65, is no longer a guarantee. And that might be a good thing for employers, who are always in need of knowledgeable, experienced employees. But employers need to also recognize that there are real responsibilities that come with fostering a healthy office environment.

Let’s say you’re part of the ever-increasing older, “silver employees” population. Suddenly, that two-story walkup office, long commute, or confining workspace no longer is a necessary inconvenience, but rather, part of a daily routine that can begin to wear on you. In the 2011 report, “Older Workers and Employment,” the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions put figures to a trend many already knew: we are working later in life. Consider the comparison between the work environment in 2010 and 10 years earlier:
- In 2010, the working rate of males 55 - 59 increased to 69.2%, up nearly 10% since 2000
- For male workers between 60 – 64, the rate climbed nine points to 20%
- For women, the increase was even more significant, with those between 55 – 59 jumping from 46 to 61%, and for those between 60 – 64, an increase of 7.4% to 17.7%

Part of this dynamic is by choice, but in large manner, it is one borne out of economic necessity, from both the employee and employer standpoint, as well as by government. Numerous nations face the reality that the retirement benefits afforded to their citizens are dwindling. Just last month, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said it was necessary for his country to consider extending working life beyond the traditional 65-year retirement age, in order to enhance flexibility and shore up pension systems. Many employers are already doing this, and more, in order to respond to the needs of older workers.

So what employers are doing it right, when it comes to responding to the needs of its older workers? We went to the source—or, at the very least, one of the sources—an international organization that has its roots in championing causes of concern to older adults: the AARP.

When the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) comes out with its annual Best Employers for Workers Over 50 Award—benefits such as training, flexible schedules and ergonomics are weighed heavily. These “best employers” include:
- Jena-Oprtronik, German aerospace engineering company. Their 55plus program includes flextime, training modules specifically designed for older workers and active promotion of mixed-age work teams.  And as workers approach retirement, they can decrease their hours to help ease the transition.

One of the biggest “fears” that older employees face is a hard transition from a five-day work week to retirement. By easing workers’ transitions into retirement, and including older workers in promotion, it sure seems that Jena-Oprtronik is reaching new heights in caring for its silver workers.
- Marks & Spencer, United Kingdom department store. Their emphasis on employee retention includes a partial retirement plan that allows older workers to draw pension benefits while continuing to work part time. The result: they have doubled the number of employees 65 and older.

Retaining older workers is very desirable for many companies. Why? Older employees have a valuable knowledge base that their younger co-workers simply haven’t built up yet. In addition, older employees are more likely to take advantage of consultancy and/or part-time opportunities, saving the employer salary and benefit, as well as start-up time needed by the less experienced, younger employee.
- National Australia Bank. This down-under financial institution’s MyFuture initiative assists employees 50+ to extend their careers through education on flexibility, balance and managing personal change. It also aims to increase employee retention. Results from its pilot program indicated that 91 percent of participants would continue working longer if they had schedule flexibility.

Job security works both ways. While employees may be concerned about losing their jobs, so too are companies concerned about losing their best, most-experienced employees, as they jump ship for promotions, larger salaries and other conveniences.
- Aerospace Corporation, United States space contractor. Sixty-one percent of all employees are over 50. The company’s ergonomics program offers employees workplace assessments to ensure that desks, chairs and work environment are ergonomically efficient. Potential ergonomic hazards are minimized or eliminated by changing jobs, workstations, tools or the environment to fit the employee's needs.

It’s a simple concept, but one worth noting: employees that are comfortable will perform better. Employers who provide ergonomic-friendly environments will have employees taking less breaks, less sick days and less likely to look elsewhere for a better environment.
“If we’re going to be responsible employers, how we are going to make [office equipment and environment] fit the employee is what’s needed,” said Robert Stuthridge, Ph.D., a British ergonomist currently at the National AgrAbility Project at Indiana’s Purdue University, in the United States.
For employers interested in providing ergonomic-friendly work environments, the benefit is not just for older employees, but for all. In the report, “Welcoming Workplace: Designing office space for an ageing workforce in the 21st century knowledge economy,” a study examining the challenges employers have in designing office environments, recommendations called for “an inclusive design approach” because “it can often produce tangible benefits for the whole workforce while simultaneously addressing the specific improvements required by older workers.”'

But the challenge seems to be how willing the employer is to invest the money and time needed for ergonomic office design. Often times, it’s a reactive process, rather than a proactive process, that occurs. “The ergonomist is often left with the problem of how to tweak the situation after the fact,” Stuthridge said. “You can too easily make ergonomics a stick rather than a carrot. We have to show [employers] solutions.”

Basic office factors, like sound and lighting, are often left out of the equation. Think about hearing. The Welcoming Workplace report outlines a obvious challenge: “… the means to address hearing difficulties will vary depending on the particular office context, but consideration should always b e give to how sound transmission can be controlled.”

Think about hearing aids, a sort of amplifier of sound, which older adults tend to use in far greater numbers than their youthful counterparts. But what you can hear while working in the office can be a detriment to productivity.
“A big complaint in the open-office concept is all the added noise,” Stuthridge said. “If you’re designing an office space, you have to consider how to reduce standing waves of noise. Having things running in the background, like machinery or music, well that becomes an ever bigger problem for someone with a hearing aid.”
Companies bringing ergonomists to the design table when they’re planning their office space makes sense, from the standpoint of employee productivity. With downsizing and outsourcing, employers are asking employees to do more. So productivity must remain high, and that cannot occur if  employees-especially older employees—do not have optimum working conditions. But the good news is that most ergonomic problems can be “fixed.”

“In the more than 11 thousand cases I’ve worked with, only twice had I said that the job couldn’t be adjusted for the employee,” Stuthridge said. “If we want to seriously consider the importance of ergonomics, we have to allow the workers to help design the space, not the other way around.”