Keep your Ageing Workers Happy
I am on holiday in Vegas, in a casino. As I sit eating my healthy eggs and fruit cup, I watch the waiters and waitresses trudge backwards and forwards. The casino lobbies are as big as football pitches with a never-ending stream of hungry guests.
Being in the USA, I am used to the divisions of labour, there are greeters, and seaters, cleaners and drink filler-uppers. Those who take the orders and, most importantly, those who take the money. The mysterious swinging door to the kitchen also hides cooks and washer ups, maintenance, and managers. It’s 07:30 in the morning and I count 30 early risers sitting at the tables and just as many waiting staff. Watching more closely, I see a young waitress stretching out a shoulder and others limping or rolling their hips in the see-saw walk of the aged or infirm. Being a nurse it’s not easy to watch…..
Ageing in Funland
I guess ages are higher than in the more trendy venues on the Vegas Strip. At a guess, I would say that about 75% are over the age of 50. What is most impressive, from my observation post, are the sizes of the platters that waiters and waitresses balance on their dominant shoulder. They weave past wandering guests or the suddenly shoved out chair. In the other hand swings a wooden fold out frame that holds the piles of food and drinks. The pause for effect, giving the server a chance to catch their breath.
I look at the shoes – no high heel showgirl shoes here, just plain black comfy flats, well-worn and presumably the best part of the dusky orange and black uniforms worn.
The service here, like most restaurants in the USA, is exceptional, with staff taking delight in your delight and dismay if anything is not to your liking. This interest comes from the poor wage given to waiting staff, supplemented by tips from grateful customers. If it ain’t good the waiting staff don’t get a tip.
So why the older demographic here off the strip? And I think about the problem of the ageing workforce back in the UK. The ‘war for talent’ in action. It’s not only the UK that has problems recruiting good people with the right skills.
Young Workers – an endangered species
I know that the UK is running out of workers with current employer plans suggesting that the UK will need to fill 3.5 million job vacancies in the next ten years, but only 7 million young people will be available. Ah! but what about immigration – sadly no, in the UK our current net immigration is around 200,000 people per year (ONS 2011) and the Government is committed to reducing this.
Older people, as seen in Vegas are an untapped source of labour, they live here and numbers are growing, so they fill the gap. I haven’t researched the figures for the US but in the UK 36% of the working population will be over 50 by 2020 (Government Actuary’s Department).
More and more people want to work longer if the conditions are right: surveys regularly show that older workers would work longer if they enjoy their work and could work more flexibly (McNair et al 2004). Also in the UK compulsory retirement is now illegal except in very special and justifiable circumstances and we have anti-discrimination laws too.
Ageing Statistics for the UK and Projections
The UK population will continue ageing with the average age rising from 39.7 years in 2010 to 39.9 years in 2020 and 42.2 by 2035 (Office for National Statistics 2011).
Even more startling is the numbers of people aged 90 and above will triple by 2035. People age 95+ will quadruple, and the number of centenarians will rise from 13,000 in 2010 to 110,000 in 2035; which is an eightfold increase (Office for National Statistics 2011).
Income for the Aged
Fewer than half of employees are paying into a workplace pension scheme, and in the private sector this figure is only about one-third (CIPD 2011), plus a staggering 54% of older workers aged 55 and above are planning to work beyond the state pension age, according to a recent survey (CIPD 2010).
In Vegas, I am told the minimum wage is $10 per hour (about £7.50) paid to most waiting staff.
Helping Ageing Workers and Protecting Others
Businesses need to understand changes in workers capability as they age. Adapting work to personal ability, skills and state of health is a continuous and dynamic process throughout the person’s career, based on adequate risk assessment. This includes adapting work to older workers’ health status and needs. Age is just one aspect of workplace diversity.
Age-sensitive risk assessment takes into account age-related aspects of groups when assessing risk, including potential changes in functional capacity and health as the worker ages, such as, more consideration of the impact of physical demands and hazards related to shift work, work in hot conditions, noise, etc., However, the potential for decline must not focus on age alone. Good workplace design benefits all age groups while targeting older workers.
Age-related changes in functional capacities are crucial for some job, such as, changes in balance have an implication for fire-fighters; a decreased ability to judge distances and the speed of moving objects has an implication for night-driving but would not, say, affect office workers.
Occupational Health and Safety Input into an Ageing Workforce
The challenges of an ageing workforce for calls for innovation in:
- Health promotion and health education
- Preventing work-related accidents and diseases
- Rehabilitation programmes to get workers back to work early
- Better support for disabled workers
- Workability and not the disability
Guidance from the Occupational Health and Safety professionals should be evidence-based and specific for occupations ranging from surgeons to airline pilots. Errors of judgement here or sudden illness present a high potential risk situation.
How to Tackle Ageing
Ageing itself is not the only consideration, we know that changes occur differently according to the person and not necessarily to at a certain age.
Here is where safety and OH services work best together doing:
- Workplace assessments
- Capability assessments
- Specific evidence-based health checks eg vision testing
- Health promotion/education programmes throughout working life
- Training programmes for line managers on ageing issues and dispelling myths
Specific Health Considerations
A few factors call for a special mention:
- Musculoskeletal and psychosocial disorders are the most prevalent cause of work disability among older workers
- Chronic symptoms and diseases often impair the ability to work and a worker returning following prolonged absence often faces the problem of unchanged work and working conditions
- Menopause symptoms are uncomfortable and rarely mentioned at work. But with 3.5 million women going through the ‘change’ it can lead to safety issues.
- Work-related stress issues focus on lack of opportunity for career development and difficulties adapting to changing technologies
Good practice examples of age management show a return on investment of between three and five to one euro after a few years.
Ageing workforce issues have to be taken seriously by business. According to research, there is a clear correlation between workability before retirement and quality of life afterwards, resulting in reduced overall demand on European healthcare systems. Treating the disease in the future will not be enough.
The new challenge is to find the adjustments needed to keep workers at work safely and productively.
Has Vegas found the answer – I don’t think so. How long will it be before these workers will need to retire due to ill-health or capability? They need to check their methods of working. Perhaps use technology? Ask workers what would help? Because I don’t think I could do their job and I am fit and a lot younger than these workers.