We all know—perhaps too well—that biology matters. As we age, our vision and balance deteriorate. We have “senior moments.” You’d think that the changes that most of us experience as we age would have a negative impact on our productivity. To the contrary, research published this spring showed that workers between the ages of 60 and 74 are, in fact, more productive, on average, than their younger counterparts.
How can this be? Furthermore, if age-related physiological changes don’t necessarily lower overall productivity, should employers adapt to changing workforce demographics by designing “age-friendly” workplaces?
In 2007, a major automaker conducted a unique experiment. Their results suggest that adapting workplaces to complement mature workers’ physical abilities can have real bottom-line benefits.
Recognizing the speed at which BMW’s workforce was aging, managers and engineers at a plant in Germany staffed one of the production lines so that the average age of the workers on that line equaled the BMW workforce’s projected average age in 2017. Modifications in the production process—suggested by the workers themselves and costing less than $50,000 to implement—resulted in a boost in productivity. The solutions were simple design changes, such as better lighting, adjustable magnifying glasses, computer displays with adjustable font sizes and forgiving flooring material. These, in turn, optimized the true potential of the autoworkers’ skills and experience. BMW’s design solutions could be considered “universal design” solutions, because they met the needs of a wide range of physical abilities. Better lighting is likely to improve productivity for older and younger workers alike.
The BMW experiment is consistent with other research indicating that older workers’ skills and experience can be more than enough to compensate for many age-related physiological changes.
What about other costs related to employee health and physical abilities?
Frequency of injuries: On the whole, the frequency of occupational injuries neither increases nor decreases over employees’ working lives. Some types of work-related injuries, though, including slips, trips and falls, tend to occur more frequently with increasing age—suggesting opportunities for saving on workers’ compensation premiums through targeted prevention programs.
Severity of injuries: When an older worker is injured, the injury tends to be more severe than when a younger worker is injured. The incidence of workplace fatalities rises with advancing age and the amount of time workers spend recovering from injury increases with age, too. The increasing severity of injuries is likely due to declines in the overall health of older employees, who tend to have more chronic disease.
Work-site health promotion programs and evidence-based screening tests will be increasingly important tools for employers to offer as the workforce ages. In addition to benefitting an aging workforce, these programs can support a generation of younger workers who are less healthy, on average, than previous generations.
The big question for many U.S. employers is whether —like BMW—they are willing to address these challenges head on. Designing workplaces that are “age-friendly” may require some difficult conversations. There are laws, after all, that protect workers from age discrimination, so conversations about aging at work can be particularly sensitive.
Promising case studies, such as a pilot research project underway at Children’s Hospital Colorado, may provide useful lessons. Children’s Hospital, a leading pediatric health-care system, has joined with researchers at the University of Colorado to study what health-care organizations can do to optimize the skills and experience of aging health-care workers, much the way BMW optimized its older autoworkers’ skills and experience. The team thinks that by adhering to the principles of universal design, by talking candidly with employees and managers in the hospital, and by reducing slip, trip, and fall hazards, Children’s Hospital can improve on its already stellar record as an employer.
When asked why Children’s Hospital is working on the project, the hospital’s occupational health manager, Roberta Smith, said, “When you think about it, the things that are safer for older workers are good for younger workers, too. It’s a no-brainer. Preparing for an older workforce is also going to help our younger employees age well.”
Outreach Director, Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center,
Colorado School of Public Health
Research Fellow, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College