How to support health in older workers to ensure job role sustainability

| September 2, 2016

Australia’s population aged 65 and over will more than double by 2054-55, putting pressure on economic and social costs. Eugene McGarrell, General Manager of Health and Community Engagement at icare, delivered the following address at the second Annual National Ageing Workforce Forum.

Australia’s population was once relatively young. In 1970-71, 31 per cent of the population was aged 15 years or younger. By 2001-02 this had dropped to 22 per cent. Australia’s population aged over 65 years had grown from 8 per cent in 1970-71 to 13 per cent in 2001-02.

Over the next 40 years, the proportion of the population over 65 years will almost double to around 25 per cent.

At the same time, growth in the population of the traditional workforce age is expected to slow to almost zero.

This is a permanent change.

People spend a lot of their time at work so work is a logical place to focus wellness programs. Wellness programs targeting prevention can reduce medical costs by $3.27 for every dollar spent, and absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar invested.

Healthy workers will miss fewer days off work, be happier and more engaged – which increases profitability… irrespective of age.

Many employers don’t have widespread wellness programs nor do they understand the implications of being old in a workplace.

Being old is not a problem, but being unwell will have an impact on the workplace.

According to the CoreData Senior Workplace Survey in April 2016, Ageism in the work place is a real problem.

The survey of 1,000 people showed that:

Close to half the baby boomer population report they have been turned down for a job because of their age.

1 in 3 baby boomers have decided not to apply for a job for fear of age discrimination.

And 1 in 3 baby boomers report age discrimination in the workplace.

More than 2 in 5 baby boomers feel stuck in their current job because they believe opportunities for new roles are hampered because of ageism.

Generation Y are more proficient at technical skills. However, baby boomers have better people skills, collaboration skills, innovation skills and problem solving skills than Gen Y.

On average Gen Y take 6 sick days a year compared to 3 days a year on average for baby boomers.

Turnover costs for employers are higher for Gen Y workers who tend to move jobs twice as often as baby boomers.

As we get older, so do the health risks associated with age – including heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

These health risks can be reduced significantly with lifestyle choices and habits.

To have a sustainable workforce in 2040 we need to engage the baby boomer generation so that they choose to stay in the workforce. Australia’s economic outlook over the next two decades is dependent on how we:

  • eliminate ageism from our organisations; and
  • improve the capacity for work through better health and wellbeing programs.

We can start tackling ageism in the workplace by acknowledging ageism and understanding exactly what it is.

A good place to start is with an honest appraisal of our culture, preventive training, revision of hiring and screening processes, carefully crafted benefits and retirement policies, and a renewed commitment to provide a supportive work environment for adults of all ages.

This requires a well-thought-out plan and the commitment of the leadership.

Effective training sessions can raise worker awareness of ageism.

The focus of the training should go beyond mere information to include real changes in culture and behaviour.

Peer reinforcement is also helpful – to encourage workers to speak up when they encounter or witness ageism.

Points to remember when hiring:

  • A candidate who has only five years left until retirement may be with your organisation longer than the average new employee.
  • Salary levels should not be assumed on the basis of age.
  • Take “date of birth” off job application forms.
  • Concentrate on skills and ability instead.
  • Use a mixed-age interview panel in the selection process whenever possible.
  • Place job advertisements where they will reach workers of all ages.

Once your team is in place:

  • Place older and younger workers together on projects so they can learn from each other.
  • Provide adequate training for all jobs.
  • Clearly communicate values on discrimination because of age.
  • Ageism policy should include harassment definitions, remedies, consequences, reporting procedures, grievance processes, and anti-retaliation language.
  • Communicate the fact that you value professional development for all employees by including it in performance evaluations.
  • Focus on skills, abilities, and potential. Avoid age considerations for promotions or training.
  • Encourage mentoring. Workers of any age can pass on their experience, and help others develop through the use of their knowledge, skills, and expertise.
  • Set a good example, and make it clear to everyone that discrimination of any kind is not tolerated.

Why invest in a workforce wellbeing strategy?

Psychological injury is the asbestos crisis of tomorrow.

We are responsible for sustaining a workforce that is well to win. Supporting the wellbeing of the workforce is mandated in Work Health & Safety legislation.

We have a responsibility to provide a physically and psychologically safe workforce. 1 in 5 people at work are living with a mood disorder or mental illness.

$1 invested in workforce mental health delivers a $2.6 return (absenteeism, presenteeism, workers comp, turnover, sickness, performance)

The cost of mental illness to the economy is 4% of GDP.

Participation in wellness programs is mostly voluntary – that’s a problem!

A strong program is inclusive of everyone.

  • Find out what your people want.
  • Make your wellness program changes “easy” and “business as usual” build a wellness framework that grows.
  • Having an RUOK? campaign doesn’t tick the box.
  • Commitment is required from the top. The Board and CEO must lead and stay committed.
  • There are no “off the shelf” strategies. We all need to create the strategy that works for our culture.
  • Workers must be engaged from the beginning.

What should employers do to deliver an effective mental health wellbeing strategy? 

“It’s not fruit bowls and yoga”.

People want to work for many reasons but bottom line is, it makes people feel good to be useful, part of a team and earning money.

We fear ageing because we don’t understand it and we don’t have workplaces that support older bodies.

Our jobs were designed for people 40 years ago. In your own companies, how often have the jobs that people do been redesigned to fit their capability?

Make the workplace a place that’s easy to be. Our bodies change as we age and we need different things. How flexible is your workplace?

Old people know a lot. What kind of mentoring program do you have? How are you capturing the knowledge of older workers?

A healthy worker is more engaged. Age is not the problem. Is your workforce healthy? How do you know? What are you measuring? What can you change?

Raise awareness.

  • Transform EAPS into a proactive employee health and wellbeing centre.
  • Use impact assessment tools to assess impact of significant managerial decisions on workforce wellbeing.
  • Provide safe places for people to say they are struggling (without prejudice).
  • Check in with employees’ wellbeing regularly and authentically.
  • Encourage reporting (increased incident reporting = reduced absence).
  • Leaders model their relationship with health.
  • Effectively manage bullying in the workplace.
  • Be sensitive to the behaviours of indirect and direct bullying.
  • Support volunteering programs – which boosts mental health and team building opportunities.
  • Adapt performance management to performance conversations. Shift from a “Fixed” mindset model to a “Growth’ mindset.
  • Know the difference between positive stress (Eustress) and negative stress (Distress). Distress is the root cause of most health issues at work and is caused by management attitude, work deadlines and inflexible working

Get good at job design – structure, support, tasks, rewards.

Take a mutual responsibility approach. But remember people with health issues may not wish to share.

icare (Insurance & Care NSW) is a Public Financial Enterprise governed by an independent Board of Directors that delivers insurance and care services to the people of New South Wales. Whether a person is severely injured in the workplace or on our roads, icare supports their long-term care needs to improve quality of life outcomes, including helping people return to work.

icare was created in September 2015 through the commencement of the State Insurance and Care Governance Act.  Our legislation establishes our Board and their role in governing icare.

The workers compensation system delivers good outcomes for about 80 percent of workers injured at work. The remaining injured workers struggle to return to work for a range of reasons including the level of disability, the culture of the workplace and associated psychosocial issues they experience.

For some injured workers this can lead to social exclusion and risk of family breakdown, homelessness, addiction and mood disorder.

icare has decided to take a whole of system approach to improve outcomes for injured workers and therefore reducing the cost of premiums to employers.

icare will focus on co-designing wellbeing strategies with employers; improving access to timely evidence based treatments with GPs and other health providers; and reconnecting those socially excluded injured workers with self-agency and opportunity.

This is in line with icare’s mantra “Commercial Mind: Social heart”.

On 4 July icare opened an innovation incubator to engage employers, health providers and the community to co-design and deliver innovations. The incubator is known as UFirst.

Ufirst is currently working with a range of stakeholders to prototype a program called i-reconnect. i-reconnect is being designed to build connections for long term injured workers through local community activities including the development of local social enterprises.

UFirst is keen to hear from early adopter employers who are keen to design, test and scale up approaches to building a sustainable older workforce.