Supporting the wellbeing of an ageing workforce

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What needs to be done to ensure a smooth transition to managing an older workforce? Dr Sheena Johnson makes some suggestions.

An ageing workforce presents challenges for employers in terms of managing employee health in order to have a high-performing workforce. Changing workforce demographics and pension and retirement changes all contribute to this trend for an older workforce. Given these developments, there is a clear need for managers and organisations to consider how this can be managed successfully. Employers need to be aware of fairness at work with ­regard to older workers, older worker stereotypes, their ­validity and the need for unsubstantiated stereotypes to be challenged.

Changing demographics

It is recognised that people are living longer and there is a rapidly ageing population. The most recent ­”European Health Report (2012)” stated that, in 2010, an estimated 15% of the overall population of the European region was aged 65 years and over, with this projected to rise to 25% of the total population by 2050. It was further reported that the average life remaining at age 65 is a further 15.5 years. These population demographic changes are beginning to affect workforce demographics and will clearly continue to do so. There is increasing incentive to extend working life (European Foundation for the ­Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2012) and there have been changes made to both retirement planning and pension entitlement with the aim of encouraging people to work longer. All this means we will see a larger proportion of the workforce being in the “older worker” bracket.

Box 1: Key findings on age and job performance

Changing population and work demographics: why is this important?

  • Increasing numbers of older workers are staying in the workforce.
  • Likely increase in numbers of older worker job applicants.
  • Need to understand/tackle age stereotypes to manage an older workforce successfully.
  • To maximise performance of organisations.
  • To protect health and wellbeing.

Pension and retirement changes

There have been well publicised changes made to the state pension age in the UK, which is set to rise to age 68 by 2046 (gov.uk, 2013). Alongside this, on 1 October 2011, the default retirement age in the UK of 65 was scrapped (gov.uk, 2011). This means that employers are no longer able to automatically retire employees at the age of 65 without clear justification. While it is arguable that these changes are necessary given the demographic changes mentioned above, there appears to have been limited discussion of what impact this will have on both individuals and organisations. Concerns have already been raised by employers as to whether or not they will be more vulnerable to age discrimination cases if older workers contest a redundancy (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2012).

From a health and wellbeing perspective, greater uncertainty around retirement planning could be detrimental for employees and managers. Consideration needs to be given to how these issues will now be tackled in a workplace in the absence of a clear “rule of thumb”, that is, a default retirement age that can serve as a guide for organisations and individuals as to when retirement plans should be made. Now this has gone, will employees know where to go for advice on retirement at work? And will managers feel able to discuss these issues with employees or will they feel it is safer to wait until an employee approaches them? What sort of impact will this have on ­individuals who may be considering their options around retirement if there is less open support and advice available to them from their organisations on these issues?

There seems to be somewhat of a “grey area” around this, with little clarity or advice available. Retirement is known to be a significant life change (Wang & Schultz, 2010) and there is a danger that increased uncertainly around this could be negative for individuals and ­employing organisations.

Moving away from the retirement issue, what does the increasing age of the workforce actually mean? Well, we are likely to see larger numbers of older workers remaining in the workforce, and higher numbers of older workerjob applicants. These changes need to be set against the backdrop of age discrimination and stereotypes, as these have the potential to affect older workers both in terms of their health and wellbeing, and their performance.

Age and fairness at work

Ageism is when a person is discriminated against or treated ­unfairly because of their age. It can take the form of direct or indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation, and can negatively affect an individual’s confidence, career, finances, and general quality of life. In the UK in 2006, age discrimination was protected by law by the Age Discrimination Act, and it is now covered under the Equality Act, 2010. The aim of this is to ensure that harmful treatment as a result of unfair age discrimination is outlawed. That is, decisions relating to performance should be based on objective evidence and not on subjective opinions about how age may affect performance. Performance and age are discussed further in the section below.

quotemarksConcerns have already been raised by employers as to whether or not they will be more vulnerable to age discrimination cases if older workers contest a redundancy.”

Despite the progress evident through the introduction of age discrimination laws, there is evidence that ageist attitudes and the negative stereotyping of older workers is still happening.

De Lange et al (2010) reviewed the age and work literature as part of their study looking at work characteristics, learning behaviour and age and concluded that “earlier research has revealed that supervisors hold negative stereotypes, provide less organisational developmental or training activities to and treat older workers less fairly than middle-aged or younger workers”.

Older workers also report difficulties in finding work and there have been large numbers of claims of age discrimination since the legislation came into force in 2006 (Acas, 2012). Combine this with the ageing workforce, increasing retirement age and pension changes, described above, and there is a clear need to understand age stereotypes. Paying attention to the ways in which older employees and older job applicants are viewed in workplaces would allow organisations to increase their understanding of both older worker strengths and needs. Such understanding can also provide indicators of where change is needed in order to best support an older workforce.

Age stereotypes

A number of age stereotypes exist (see box 2). Before looking at whether or not there is any validity to these stereotypes, consider for a moment the impact such stereotypes can have in a workplace. They can be a big problem, both for the older worker and for their employing organisation.

Schalk et al (2010) in their discussion of research on work and ageing described how “the most important source of counteractive HR policies and managerial decisions with respect to older ­employees is the existence of age stereotypes”.

Other researchers have also proposed that employee well-being, performance and health can be ­affected by the “age appropriateness” of HR policies (Shultz et al 2010).

Some examples of the impact stereotypes could have in the workplace are that they can:

  • negatively influence employment decisions, meaning that older workers could be viewed as having poorer performance without any objective evidence to support this belief;
  • negatively affect the selection process. This is linked to the above in that if older workers are assumed to have poorer performance – and, be more resistant to change, more likely to be ill etc – then it is possible they will be less likely to be hired than a younger person;
  • have a detrimental effect on the motivation and performance of those affected. Being discriminated against is likely to affect the way in which you approach your work and the success you have within the job;
  • contribute to damaging health. The stress of facing discrimination at work and feeling unfairly treated can lead to poorer health; and
  • lead to legal implications for employers if stereotyping leads to discrimination.

If older workers are to be treated fairly at work there is a need to tackle and change age stereotypes within organisations. Having a realistic, as opposed to stereotypical, view of the abilities and competencies of older workers will enable organisations to better manage an older workforce.

Consider only the facts

Stereotypes are not facts and there is a need to consider the evidence that supports, or disproves these stereotypes.

Two of the key papers that have contributed to an understanding of the relationship between age and job performance, and age and job attitudes were published by Ng and Feldman in 2008 and 2010.

quotemarksHaving a realistic, as opposed to stereotypical, view of the abilities and competencies of older workers will enable organisations to better manage an older workforce.”

In these papers Ng and Feldman reviewed the literature and performed meta-analyses to investigate the influence of age as shown by the combination of data gathered from multiple studies – between them the two papers incorporated findings from more than a thousand studies. Ng and Feldman’s 2008 research shows that there is little supporting evidence for the negative stereotypes ­described above.

Further evidence to dispel age stereotypes was also found in Ng and Feldman’s 2010 paper looking at age and job attitudes. Here, the two researcher described how they found modest support for their hypothesis that “older workers tend to have more favourable (and/or less unfavourable) job attitudes”.

Examples of job attitudes included in this review are overall job satisfaction (weak positive relationship with age), work motivation (weak positive relationship with age) and feelings of burnout (weak negative relationships between age and emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment).

More recently, a European ­research project in Germany and the UK saw Johnson, Holdsworth, Hoel and Zapf (2013) investigate the competencies of older workers. The rationale for the study was that there is evidence – in non-work contexts – that older employees have superior social and emotional competencies and attitudes.

Would these competencies also help older employees in a work environment? Investigation of this in the UK retail service sector ­revealed that older employees were better able to manage their emotions at work and had fewer negative health outcomes from stressful interactions.

The results also suggested that older employees could identify when active coping – trying to change a situation – is relevant and used it more appropriately than did younger workers. The key points from the study were that older employees:

  • used stress management strategies more appropriately resulting in less burnout and better health;
  • experienced fewer customer stressors; and
  • could bring benefits to organisations, such as potential better ­quality of service and increase in customer satisfaction.

Conclusions and recommendations

Box 2: Some age stereotypes older workers have

  • Poorer cognitive functioning.
  • Lower ability/ performance.
  • More resistance to change.
  • More resistance to training.
  • More sickness absence.

There is an accumulation of evidence that shows little, if any, justification for age stereotyping, and there is a legal requirement not to age ­discriminate. The changing demographics are leading to increases in the proportion of older workers within organisations. It is therefore important that the qualities of older workers become more widely recognised.

Older worker stereotypes that are not supported by evidence need to be dispelled. Demonstrating the benefits of older workers in terms of areas such as job performance, health and customer satisfaction may help to discourage employers from “circumventing” age discrimination regulations.

Organisations should consider how they can best support older workers to continue to receive the good performance older workers can offer an organisation.

Providing appropriate support will also positively ­influence older employee health and wellbeing.

Dr Sheena Johnson C.Psychol is an occupational psychologist and senior lecturer in organisational psychology, Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. She is a member of the British Psychological Society Health and Wellbeing Working Group, and FairWRC (Fairness at Work Research Centre, Manchester Business School).

References

Acas (2012). “Being age-aware can help employers avoid age discrimination claims”. 

De Lange A, Taris TW, Jansen P, Kompier MAJ, Houtman ILD, Bongers PM (2010). “On the relationships among work characteristics and learning-related behavior: Does age matter?” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 925-950.

European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2012.

European Health Report (2012). The European Health Report 2012: Charting the way to well-being.

Gov.uk. (2011). “Default retirement age to end this year”.

Gov.uk. (2013). “Changes to the state pension”.

Johnson SJ, Holdsworth L, Hoel H, Zapf D (2013). “Customer stressors in service organisations: The impact of age on stress management and burnout”. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology; vol.22, issue 3, 2013.

Ng TWH, Feldman DC (2008). “The relationship of age to ten dimensions of job performance”. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (2), pp.392-423.

Ng TWH, Feldman DC (2010). “The relationships of age with job attitudes: A meta-analysis”. Personnel Psychology, 63, pp.677-718.

Schalk R et al (2010). “Moving European research on work and ageing forward: Overview and agenda”. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 19, pp.76-101.

Shultz KS, Wang M, Crimmins EM, Fisher GG (2010). “Age differences in the demand-control model of work stress”. Journal of Applied Gerentology, 29 (1), 21-47.

The Equality Act (2010). www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents

Wang M, Shultz KS (2010). “Employee retirement: A review and recommendations for future investigation. Journal of Management, 36 (1), 172-206.

Box 3: How organisations can successfully manage an older workforce

  • Raise awareness among the workforce about the need to work to an older age.
  • Provide information and support to employees with regard to pension and retirement issues.
  • Be aware of the value of older workers in the workplace.
  • Include information about the positive characteristics of older workers and an age diverse workforce in organisational literature.
  • Avoid discrimination against older workers.
  • Be aware of age discrimination legislation.
  • Consider whether decisions about older workers are based on stereotypes or facts.
  • Be able to give job-related explanations for decisions (for example, when hiring or promoting) to reduce the risk of claims of age discrimination.
  • Train managers to avoid age stereotypes.
  • Place emphasis on skills development/employability.
  • Provide age-appropriate training.
  • Encourage knowledge transfer between employees.
  • Consider mentoring schemes to facilitate knowledge transfer and interaction between employees.
  • Provide OH services that accommodate the needs of an ageing workforce.

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