Many workers in their mid- to late 40s begin to experience some degree of “ageism” in terms of their employment opportunities.
Outdated attitudes, stereotyping, unfair policies, and prejudices can negatively affect mature workers by:
- Prematurely forcing them out of the workplace
- Denying them promotions
- Excluding them from learning and training opportunities
Not only can these mistaken beliefs harm mature workers, but they also negatively affect employers and businesses.
An aging population and fewer young people entering the labour force could mean there won’t be as many workers available in the near future. Recruiting and retaining mature workers can help employers address labour shortages and gain the benefit of these workers’ experience.
The role of employment counsellors
Employment counsellors can advise employers, managers, and supervisors on issues in the workplace that affect mature workers.
You can help employers:
- Recognize the advantages of hiring and retaining mature workers
- Consider simple changes in the work environment to keep mature workers safe, healthy, and productive
- Learn how to reduce the shortage of skilled workers by keeping mature workers employed
- Understand how a safe and healthy work environment benefits workers of all ages
- Connect with further resources and find more information
The effects of age
Employers should understand that not only do the effects of age vary from person to person, but some abilities tend to remain fairly constant—or improve—with age.
Age versus physical fitness
First, you can help employers recognize that age does not determine fitness. Studies show that with regular physical exercise, physical capacity can remain relatively unchanged between ages 45 and 65. Younger workers who do not exercise can be less fit than mature co-workers who look after their health.
Thinking smarter: Mind over matter
It’s true that learning and using rapid-reaction skills decreases with age. The mental and motor skills needed to quickly and deftly manipulate a joystick, for example, start to decline as early as age 30.
However, in most cases, perception, memory, and learning skills remain constant well past the traditional retirement age. Some mental abilities, such as planning and language use, can even improve with age.
People skills, such as the ability to work well in groups, also tend to get better with age. Experience often improves work efficiency and the understanding of tasks. This means mature workers tend to “work smarter.”
Career assets of mature workers
“In the retail sector, we recognize that older workers may be with us longer; they may not have to be retrained and are good role models for younger workers. Older workers also have a better track record in terms of safety.” —Business association official
You can help employers understand that mature workers bring a range of positive qualities to the job, including:
- A strong work ethic
- A proven performance record
- Knowledge and skills
- A sense of responsibility and duty to the job
- Loyalty and commitment to the organization
- Less likelihood of switching jobs
- An ability to manage their time
- A co-operative and team-oriented attitude
- Productivity and efficiency
- Access to many community contacts
- A realistic understanding of their abilities and shortcomings
- A willingness to work flexible schedules
- Life and work experience
- An ability to be retrained
- An ability to serve as role models and mentors
Safety and rights in the workplace
The Alberta Human Rights Act [pdf] protects Albertans from discrimination. Protected grounds include those based on age. Employers cannot—under the guise of safety concerns or otherwise—single out mature workers with misgivings about their ability to do the work. If a concern exists, employers must apply and address this concern across all workers, not just the specific individuals.
Encourage employers to educate managers about legislation so they can talk to employees about known disabilities and possible accommodations. Hiring managers should be aware that the time to ask about accommodations is when they make an offer to the candidate. During the interview, they may simply ask, “Is there anything we can provide or do that will help you be successful in this job?”
There is no legislated mandatory retirement age in Alberta.
Duty to accommodate
The Alberta Human Rights Commission’s Duty to Accommodate bulletin says: “The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that employers, unions and service providers have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to accommodate individual needs to the point of undue hardship.”
To claim undue hardship, employers must show that they would experience substantial interference or disruption of business, or intolerable conditions or costs over and above any gains from the accommodation. In many cases, accommodation measures are simple and affordable and do not create undue hardship.
For more information on the duty to accommodate, direct employers to the Alberta Human Rights Commission Duty to Accommodate information sheet.
“Any change you make for one person helps the whole population. Changes made for the older population can be the driver, but they will benefit everyone in the workplace.” —Ergonomics consultant advising a large urban Alberta municipality
Supporting the health, safety, productivity, and well-being of mature workers may sometimes require minor changes at the job site and in work routines. These measures will also make the workplace better for all employees. Often the necessary changes and adjustments involve minor expenses for an employer.
Health and safety
Age doesn’t dictate a worker’s health and safety requirements. But certain conditions, such as inadequate lighting, can pose a particular danger for mature workers. However, improved lighting will also help ensure the health and safety of all workers.
To create a healthy, safe workplace for all workers, encourage employers to consider the following approaches.
“If you manage the business better from a safety perspective, everyone benefits. It doesn’t matter how old they are.”
—Alberta-based safety coordinator with a national retailer
Design the workplace to fit the work
Good workplace design, procedures, and equipment will improve:
- Efficiency, including performance and productivity
- Health and safety
- Comfort and ease in doing the job
When these conditions are met, it often indicates that the equipment or work procedures are ergonomically designed. Good ergonomics involves fitting the job to the worker. It also means matching the product or equipment to the worker’s job requirements.
While exercise generally occurs on a worker’s own time and initiative, employers can encourage such activity by:
- Offering in-house exercise facilities
- Providing incentives to take part in fitness programs and classes
- Supporting quit-smoking programs
Plan shift work around the body clock
Fatigue can be a safety hazard for all workers. While workers under age 18 have specific legal limits on the time of day when they can work, these limits don’t exist for mature workers.
Some studies have shown that those over 40 have greater difficulty adapting to shift work. This can mean that work performance, and the safety of mature workers, could suffer from changes to the regular circadian (daily body clock) patterns.
This does not mean mature workers cannot or should not do shift work. However, the impact of sleep patterns should be considered when assigning and scheduling shift work.
- Offer workers flex time and shorter hours
- Minimize night shift work
- Use shift rotations that are the least disruptive to sleep (forward shift rotations, consisting of morning shifts, followed by evening and night shifts and then days off, are preferable)
- Limit shift lengths, particularly night shifts, to 8 hours
Respond to changes
Employers can take simple measures to accommodate the changes that gradually occur as people age. Encourage employers to consider the following adjustments to support the health, safety, and performance of workers experiencing changes to physical and mental systems and processes.
Muscle strength and endurance
- Provide mechanical devices and power tools for lifting and moving
- Minimize lifting by storing items at lower levels and packing items in smaller quantities
- Provide supportive, adjustable seating and workstations
- Minimize work requiring fixed (static) muscle positions
- Provide grip-friendly tools, gripping gloves, and easy-to-turn container lids
- Provide long-handled tools to reduce bending
- Provide guidelines and training for lifting, sitting, standing, bending, and stretching
Bones and cartilage
- Minimize slips, trips, and falls by reducing the need for climbing and height work
- Arrange for proper equipment and tools storage
- Supply safe ladders and steps
- Ensure proper lighting
- Construct and mark steps, floors, and surfaces properly
- Install fall-protection barriers
- Rotate work assignments to avoid repetitive strain
- Limit above-shoulder and above-head work
- Eliminate or isolate vibration
- Offer exercise or stretch breaks
Cardiovascular and respiratory systems
- Provide mechanical devices to minimize lifting
- Adjust work in high or low temperatures
- Avoid work in extreme heat or cold, if possible
- Provide air conditioning, heating, and adequate ventilation
- Assign and schedule work to avoid fatigue
- Reduce general workplace noise
- Use backup warning systems, lights, and vibration systems along with sounds
- Reduce long-term and repeated exposure to noise
- Shield and insulate noisy equipment
- Provide hearing protection
- Speak clearly
- Where practical, improve workplace lighting, making it individually adjustable and suited to the task
- Reduce glare by using several light sources rather than 1 large source
- Provide indirect lighting
- Avoid sharp contrasts in light levels
- Reduce sunlight glare with shades and awnings
- Ensure written material and displays have sufficient contrast
- Provide personal protective equipment for eyes
- Provide or encourage regular eye examinations
Mental, sensory, and motor processes
- Reduce multi-tasking
- Increase time between steps of a task
- Increase available decision-making time
- Reinforce tasks and skills (including emergency response) through repetition, drills, and refresher courses
Design training for mature workers
While mature workers may sometimes take slightly longer to learn, once they have mastered a routine or task, it sticks. They tend to make fewer mistakes.
Mature workers may be unfamiliar with or have been away from formal classroom education and testing for many years. Here are some strategies you can suggest to employers who are training mature workers:
- Explain why they are learning.
- Provide supportive and friendly learning environments.
- Use small groups, case studies, and role play.
- Use step-by-step or self-paced learning.
- Build on the familiar by making a connection with past learning and experience.
- Avoid giving too much information at once.
- Consider instruction by peer workers of the same age.
- Speak clearly and exclude unnecessary noise.
- Accommodate older eyes with written materials that use an easily readable font size, style, and contrast.
Culture and communication
Historically, supervisors tended to be older than those they supervised. This is changing, particularly where workers opt to stay on the job longer, perhaps taking on different roles and reduced responsibilities.
A younger supervisor has not walked in the shoes of a worker a generation older. Younger supervisors may not yet fully appreciate some changes associated with aging.
When overseeing mature workers, it is important that supervisors:
- Be aware of different generational values and attitudes
- Avoid adopting a “child-to-parent” attitude toward an older worker
- Avoid “going easy” on mature workers on performance and safety issues
You can help employers and supervisors grow positive working relationships with mature workers by encouraging them to:
- Recognize their own and others’ faulty ideas about aging
- Learn about the physical and mental changes related to aging
- Recognize that everyone is different
- Represent the view of the organization rather than expressing their own attitudes or those of their generation
- Have mature workers mentor younger employees