The pandemic is pushing people to reconsider their post-work-life ambitions. According to a study last fall by investment firm, Edward Jones, nearly eight million Canadians are now reconsidering when they will retire with more than 30 per cent planning on retiring later due to financial reasons. Another poll conducted by Scotiabank this year found a similar percentage of people plan on working longer than expected due to COVID-19-related loss of income.
This aging demographic of workers, which was already growing pre-pandemic, will ultimately provide organizations with unique opportunities, such as the retention of experienced employees who typically have lower absenteeism than younger workers and a sharp customer focus, which will be a key benefit for companies going forward as restrictions are lifted.
Yet the natural impacts of aging will likely impact older employees’ performance. With age comes a decline in muscular strength and range of motion, reduced ability for prolonged heavy labour, a diminishing of posture and balance, and changes with vision and hearing over time. Chronic conditions and comorbidities also increase, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and cognitive decline like dementia. With workplace experience, job knowledge, and a longer working career, older workers can still inspire younger employees to work safer and be more productive.
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, older workers have a lower incidence of workplace injuries; however, once they are injured, the injuries are more severe and recovery takes much longer than their younger co-workers. Therefore, it is important to take an ergonomic approach to support the entire workforce to allow them to work safely each day. At the heart of ergonomics is designing workplaces and tasks to fit the workers. The first step is to create a workplace that reduces the chance of injury for all employees, regardless of age, years of experience, or knowledge. This includes utilizing workplace design concepts to create an environment that supports older employees through design opportunities and enhancements to indoor lighting, auditory privacy, and equipment adjustability.
As people age, they can experience natural vision changes to depth perception, reading distances, resistance to glare, and even colour perception. The workplace should include a variety of lighting sources that reduce glare and highlight elevation transitions such as steps and thresholds between spaces. Areas such as photocopy rooms and workstations should include adjustable task-type lighting for reading and reduced eye strain. In spaces which face either east or west, the inclusion of adjustable blinds can also reduce glare at specific times of the day.
Hearing and auditory deficits occur with age, including overall hearing loss and the inability to listen to specific sounds or someone talking with loud background noises. To support auditory changes there needs to be a blend of open and closed workstation and meeting room areas, specifically when multiple individuals must collaborate together. In the design and choice of workspace materials, softer and sound absorbing materials will minimize distracting background noise such as echoing.
Adjustable furniture is the key to good ergonomic design. Not every employee is the same size; neither should furniture they use. It is important to provide all employees with height-adjustable task chairs, keyboard trays, lighting, and other types of adjustable equipment as needed. The strain of repetitive motions can be higher in older workers. Organizations should also look at providing hands-on education and training on how to properly adjust the equipment to fit each worker and how to recognize the signs and symptoms of musculoskeletal injuries.
Individuals are working longer in life due to a variety of reasons. Retaining employees provides many benefits, but must also be balanced with the changing physical needs of aging workers. By focusing on how the work environment can reduce the risk of injury, good ergonomic design can support everyone to be safe and productive—increasing organizational performance.
Aaron Miller is an ergonomics consultant based in Kelowna, B.C. As a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE), Aaron specializes in leading design and corporate initiatives to improve organizational efficiency, effectiveness, and opportunities for change. Aaron can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org