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‘Ageing workers’ and their employers

Liam Butler interviews ergonomist Marion Edwin about ‘ageing workers’ and their employers.

10 March 2015

Liam Butler

How can older people continue to work at the jobs they enjoy and do well?

Marion Edwin, ergonomist at Optimise Ltd Motueka:

By keeping on doing it, and keeping fit (but adjusting if you have to).

As we age many changes occur in our physical and mental performance, and we will manage these best if we understand them and adjust our work methods and pace to suit. This requires workers and employers to have good communication regarding the potential issues. And it is important to remember that not all of these changes are negative - managed effectively, the positive attributes of mature workers can be an enormous advantage in the workplace. For example the depth of experience and accumulated knowledge of older workers, combined with theirreliability and consistency, is essential in many businesses.

We don't all age in the same way, and body systems do not age at the same rate. And the changes do not result in inevitable negative consequences. In fact, we would do well to remember that normal ageing - in the absence of disease - is quite benign. Although organs gradually lose function changes are not always noticed until times of great exertion and stress - this may first be noticed as a loss of reserve capacity. Some age changes are discussed following.

Skin - wrinkles and appearance changes, and there is a reduction in the efficiency of sweat glands. Combined with a reduced sense of thirst (and appetite) this may mean that ageing workers in physically demanding outdoor jobs might need to pay extra attention to heat management and hydration.

Brain - slower processing and learning of new information; reduced working memory; difficulty with word retrieval; and difficulty distinguishing relevant/irrelevant information resulting in impaired attention. Employers may benefit from ensuring that the needs of ageing workers are being met - they might not be so enthused or effective workers in the vibrant, ‘humming' open plan office as your young workers, but may be very productive in a quieter area. It is also important to ensure that the culture and practices within the workplace are supportive of mature employees.

Nerves, skeleton and muscles- reaction times may slow, and a decline in the balance reserve may impact on overall physical capacity. Muscle strength declines about 20-40% when in your 70's and 80's, and to about 50% in your 90's. However with this loss lessened by resistance training, there is very good reason to promote the ‘use it or lose it' message to keep your older workers in best shape.

Sleep - with less melatonin deep sleep may reduce, it may take longer to get to sleep and be more easily woken. This leads to a tendency to day-time sleepiness - which can often be remedied by healthy workplace napping. Many employers have cottoned on to the benefits of napping - the ‘snooze room' may be more important than the coffee machine for productivity.

Vision - the eyes tend to become less tolerant of glare, don't adapt to the dark so quickly, and require more illumination - and tear production declines so eyes may be drier. These changes may indicate that older workers will function best with good lighting, and attention to the workplace environment for suitable humidity.

Hearing - eardrums thicken and auditory canal walls thin, and there is a tendency to lose high frequency hearing - so it may be no surprise that 50% of over 85 year olds have significant hearing loss. Workplaces with mature workers should therefore be well skilled in addressing hearing conservation needs, and ensuring that appropriate communication channels are used.

Heart and lungs - increased arterial rigidity creates higher blood pressure, but blood pressure may drop on standing up (more likely to faint). At rest there is no change to cardiac output, but the heart may be less efficient when the heart rate rises. The lungs may also be less efficient. These changes are often noticed as less reserve when needing to work really hard - again an argument for maintaining excellent fitness, but also to ensure that mature workers are in roles that suit their physical capacity.

Work motivation, wellbeing and life balance - ageing workers may be less motivated by the ‘cut and thrust' of work in their sector, and be more conscious of their desire to balance family time and personal interests. They may be supporting older relatives and younger grandchildren, and be managing a wide range of potential health issues of their own and of those dear to them. Reduced work hours, greater flexibility of work hours, and a reduction of duties may be sought by some, and may act as a healthy stepping stone to eventual retirement. However many others recognise that active contact with work colleagues and engagement with their work activities plays a huge part in their emotional wellbeing - and they may not be so keen to ‘retire' at all.


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