Challenges of an Aging Workforce

The demographics are clear: the Canadian workforce is aging and older workers are making up a greater portion of the workforce. With the large number of ‘baby boomers’ born after World War Two now aging, it is estimated that by next year, approximately 41 per cent of the working population will be between the ages of 45 and 64 (up from 29 per cent in 1991), and this percentage will continue to increase over the coming years.

What does this mean for employers?

With a large part of the workforce being middle aged or older there is an immediate need to understand and address the issues of this quickly growing group of workers, to keep them healthy and safe at work. In addition, employers could face a labour and skills shortage with the loss of older workers through early retirement, and fewer people entering the workforce. For employers to meet their labour needs, it is important to retain their skilled older workers. Accommodating the needs of those older workers can play a key role in that retention.

Impact of aging on workers

The impacts of aging on a worker are as varied as the individual who is aging. Generally, older workers may experience physical, sensory and cognitive changes that can accompany aging. On the other hand, they may also accumulate experience, knowledge, and insight as they age, making them a valuable resource for their organization.

In general, while older workers may work slower or make decisions less quickly, they tend to be more accurate in their work and make better decisions. Studies report that older workers generally have lower turnover, more dedication to the workplace, and positive work values.

Older workers also tend to have fewer injuries, but when they do get hurt, their injuries are often more severe and may take longer to heal. Younger workers tend to get more eye or hand injuries, while, in general, older workers who have been working for many years report more back injuries. Many workplace injuries are related to repetitive motion injuries that develop over time. An older worker who has been working longer may report more musculoskeletal injuries since the condition has had more time to develop.

There is a risk for injury when anyone, regardless of their age, is pushed to work harder than they safely can, which underscores the importance of preventing illness and injury in the first place. Today’s older population, besides experiencing personal and health issues that can come with age, may face additional challenges, including evolving family responsibilities as they care for their families, spouses and elderly parents.

How to accommodate an aging workforce

A well-designed workplace that matches workstations and job tasks to the needs of the individual employee benefits all workers, not just those who are older.

  • Adapt the work environment to better meet the needs and comfort levels of older workers by considering lighting, heat, and ergonomics.
  • Adjust workstations and match job tasks to the needs of the employee taking into account the physical capabilities and limitations of individual workers.
  • Offer flexible work arrangements such as job sharing, flexible hours, part time jobs, the option to work from home and other kinds of reduced work schedules to help workers better balance their responsibilities at work and at home.
  • Design and provide appropriate training programs to help older workers learn, keeping in mind that training may have to be more “practical”. Older workers may take longer to train and may also need more assistance or practice than younger workers.
  • Stimulate employees’ interests and creativity in their work by broadening the range of work experience. Workplaces can draw on employees’ years of experience by encouraging them to mentor younger workers or facilitate training of other older workers.
  • Provide workplace wellness programs that give workers access to services such as Employee Assistance, fitness, and nutrition programs.

By taking steps now to help all workers stay safe and healthy at work as they age, and addressing the immediate needs of older workers, employers will benefit from an experienced, dedicated pool of employees. Most importantly, the workers can work in an environment that meets their changing needs and enables them to work comfortably and safely.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety