How can organisations keep older staff engaged and productive? Start by asking what physical or role tweaks would help, suggests HR expert Professor Carol Kulik.
Mature-aged workers comprise a significant proportion of the workforce — especially in the public service, with over-50s making up nearly one-third of all APS staff.
They have decades of work experience, and often occupy senior and well-paid positions.
Yet many feel neglected by their employer, says University of South Australia human resources expert Professor Carol Kulik.
This leads to lower engagement and productivity, with some frustrated staff only completing 60-80% as much work as they otherwise could.
Others will make the decision to quit when their employer refuses to make adjustments, taking their experience with them and prompting a recruitment process.
Either way, this disengagement costs the organisation and makes life difficult for the employee. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
There are three main groups of accommodations: physical, role and time flexibility, and training and mentoring.
“In terms of accommodations, we’ve interviewed so many older workers, and when they tell us their stories, the accommodations they’re asking for seem so small,” Kulik explains.
“Sometimes it’s just one task that they would like to not do anymore. Sometimes it’s not working the late shift. So to us as academic researchers it doesn’t seem that complicated. But they’re regularly told no.”
For many, small physical changes can make a big difference.
“What we know as people age is that poor health is the first thing that’s going to drive you out of your job,” she tells The Mandarin.
“But then if you do have good health, and right now we have a very healthy ageing population, there are a few changes you go through that are both physical and psychological. Even healthy ageing involves things like your vision gets a little bit worse, or your knees might develop some arthritis.”
Often physical adaptations are simple and inexpensive.
Kulik cites car manufacturer BMW, which asked a production line of older workers what would help them. Small changes like printing reminder posters in large font, installing bar stools for staff to sit on while not actively working, and putting equipment on walls to facilitate stretching, helped bring productivity up to the same level as other production lines. These measures were rolled out across the factory some years later.
“Usually the physical changes that make the job better for older people make it better for everyone,” she explains.
“It might make it better for someone who is of smaller stature and thus physically weaker, there may be people with invisible disabilities who aren’t older.”
Flexibility — more than leaving at 3pm
Second is flexibility. While flexibility for parents is becoming more widely accepted, older people tend to have different needs — for example, wanting to take large chunks of time off in one go for travel or grandchildren, or having more time for volunteering.
Westpac, for example, offers grandparents up to 52 weeks unpaid leave up to the grandchild’s second birthday.
CVS pharmacies in the United States allow older staff from cold northern states to transfer to sites in Florida for the winter, fitting with the “snow bird” movements many older Americans make each year.
“It doesn’t always mean letting people leave work at three o’clock so they can do the childcare pickups. It’s about finding out what sort of flexibility people need,” she says.
Learning from each other
Third is building in mentoring and training opportunities.
Kulik is a big advocate of multi-generational teams, allowing staff of different ages to learn from one another.
Training is less threatening if you’re taught how to use new software by the younger colleague you sit next to than being the only person in a training session confused about how to use the new system.
And with their longer careers, older staff have plenty to teach younger colleagues too, making it a two-way relationship. For many older staff, this may also address a desire to give back.
“We often see people focus less on their individual achievement, and more focus on developing the next generation or become interested in mentoring,” she explains.
Adapting as a team
One of the major roadblocks “is that managers really like standardisation”, says Kulik. They may be concerned other staff will see any change as being unfair.
Her advice is to involve the whole team in the discussion.
“One of the things we find is that often when there’s a task an older worker wants to give up, it may well be a task that somebody else in the team enjoys,” she explains.
“A lot of the time teams can work this out pretty well for themselves, it’s the manager who is resistant. In some of the work I’ve been doing for organisations that are trying to be more creative about flexibility, they encourage the work team to put together the proposal, as opposed to having the individual put up the proposal.
“That can overcome some of these managerial barriers — when they say ‘I can’t let David work flexibly because Mary is going to be unhappy’, well you’ve already engaged Mary in that conversation so it can make a stronger case when you go in to negotiate it.”
The burden of stereotypes
The challenges of ageing in the workplace can be made worse by stereotypes — the idea that older people are frail, grumpy or resistant to change. Interestingly, notes Kulik, it’s a view that’s often shared by older people themselves, believing that are “the exception that proves the rule”.
She’s concerned that while the pandemic appears to have demonstrated the value of flexibility, it has also emphasised the idea of older people as vulnerable.
“But in fact the research shows older people in the workforce take very few sick leave days, people who are still working as they age tend to be among the healthiest part of population.”
Yet just knowing others might think this about you can affect how you act and perform at work, she adds. This is what’s known as ‘stereotype threat’.
“If I’m an older worker and I’m talking to my younger manager, I may walk into that conversation thinking, ‘oh this younger person is probably already thinking of me as an older worker, and they’re not going to be very accommodating or supportive’.
“We find that that threat adds extra cognitive burden that older people carry. As a result they’re working under an added level of pressure. In some of the research they find people who are experiencing stereotype threat are more likely to make mistakes in language, they move slower, they act older as a result.”
Stereotype threat can be triggered by working in an environment with lots of age cues.
“It might be walking into an open plan office and seeing lots of young people, and you’re the only old person in that environment. It may be reporting to a younger boss. It may be working in an environment where there are lots of popular culture posters which suggest a younger culture. It may be the choice of words the organisation uses in its job descriptions.”
It also comes through in recruitment, she adds. Lots of photos of young people on your website may send the message that it’s not a place for younger people.
“I would try to incorporate diversity in the photos. I keep pushing intergenerational teams. Find some examples of that in your workplace and promote that mix. Older people share the same stereotypes, so if you feature a lot of older people in your ad, they don’t want to work there either. Everyone is going to react positively to seeing themselves, but seeing themselves in an age diverse environment.
“The other thing we find in the research is that both younger and older people respond positively to advertising that emphasises the organisation’s values. If you focus on things like commitment to clients or serving the community, those tend to attract both groups without turning one off.”
Where to start?
If your organisation has not yet spent much time on this issue, Kulik’s advice is to start with an age audit.
“Are you aware of the age patterns in your workforce? Are you looking at age patterns within your units and groups? Have you set it up so older people are working in some teams and younger people in other teams, so you’re not getting those inter-generational benefits? That’s a place to start.
“Second is to ask employees what they need, and if you ask that, you’ll probably find some easy-to-implement strategies.”
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