Ageing is normal

25 July, 2015  |  News

Older workers are forming an increasing proportion of the New Zealand workforce and also make up a disproportionately large percentage of work fatalities, which makes addressing their health and safety concerns an issue for all organisations.

Katherine Percy, chief executive of Workbase, told the Safeguard conference that New Zealand has internationally high rates of people aged 55+ in the workforce, and high rates for the 65+ age group too. However, things “start to go south” from about the age 45, which she said represents 90 percent of work-related fatalities and 45 percent of new ACC claims.

The four most common age-related health conditions are heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis, but the risk factors for these – diet, smoking, drinking, exercise, weight management – can all be influenced by wellness programmes.

She urged delegates to reflect on the attitude to ageing in their organisations; in other words, what would be the reaction if an older worker disclosed to a supervisor that he or she was having problems coping and would like adjustments made?

“Perceptions matter a lot because they feed into culture and behaviour. If older workers fear the reaction won’t be positive and pragmatic, they won’t tell you. Their number one concern is losing their job.”

Dealing with ageing staff is an issue few employers will be able to avoid, so the challenge is to involve older employees and offer them flexibility so get the best out of them and the talents they bring.

“While ageing is normal, it isn’t normalised within many workplaces.”

She urged delegates to have one-on-one conversations with older workers and to ask them how they are coping. If you are launching a wellbeing programme, ask them how they feel about taking part. “A boot camp would kill some of us.”

They need support to take time off for medical appointments and regular health checks, and require easily digested health information when appropriate.

“People need to actively manage their own health and to do that they need information. There’s lots of evidence people don’t understand much of the health information they are given, which has parallels with health and safety information. Doctors do a lot of telling at times when people have just been diagnosed.”

For older employees undertaking higher risk tasks – such as manual handling – it would be advisable to seek advice from occupational health practitioners. How much weight is involved? How to assess fitness for work? Do supervisors need to be trained to conduct observations and have these kinds of conversations?

Percy said employers aimed to activate discretionary effort from their employees, and asking is a lot more effective than telling when it comes to managing the risks of an ageing workforce.

alert24 27/7/15