Riding the Gray Wave

Make sure your communications serve to invite older workers to come, to stay, and to work safely and productively.

WOULD you like to shift the tide of your maturing workforce from resistant and at risk to involved and secure? The Baby Boom, the birth bulge from 1946 to 1964, is now a Gray(ing) Wave that makes up 40 percent of the U.S. workforce. Many organizations are concerned they will have to pay the costs associated with their aging workers. These costs may include safety issues, rising worker's compensation, decreased productivity and efficiency, increased absenteeism, lowered adaptation to needed changes, and more.

But rather than wringing corporate hands over a seemingly uncontrollable current, many companies are learning to ride the Wave--to go beyond surviving these changes to "hanging-five," to get the most benefit from the ride.

Here are five strategies for successfully surfing the inevitable Gray Wave coming your way:

1. Make the work environment Gray Wave friendly.
Too often, older employees feel left out. Being treated as a drag on productivity, health care costs, and probable hindrances to innovation can be demotivating. Instead, look for ways to make older employees feel welcome and valued. Most company leaders we've worked with are convinced that engaged employees show fewer symptoms of organizational neglect--absenteeism, minimal motivation--and even fewer aches, pains, and claims.

You don't have to throw an annual "old timers" banquet. Just an occasional sincere thanks does many Gray Wavers fine. As Mark Twain said, "I can live for two months on a good compliment." Make sure you honor their loyalty and dedication. Most important, make sure your communications serve to invite older workers to come, to stay, and to work safely and productively.

Surprisingly, a late 2006 Career Builders survey revealed that only one out of five organizations plans to hire retirees from other companies or provide incentives for workers approaching retirement age to stay longer with the company. That means a significant majority of organizations don't seem to be doing much to entice and retain Gray Wavers. This may be a big mistake, given that the labor market is projected to tighten during the coming years.

Many employees who enter retirement age don't want to retire, whether for financial reasons or because they wish to remain active. Smart organizations will figure out how to integrate retirement by offering differing workload levels.

2. Take advantage of the knowledge and experience older workers brings.
Involve them in innovation and methods improvement. Everyone, including Gray Wavers, wants to be part of and contribute to organizational success. Because of their experience, older employees have a lot to contribute when made part of the productivity process. Studies show that a major cause of mental slowing is, in fact, associated with lack of use or challenge.

Warning: Many older workers report becoming resistant to incessant demands to leapfrog productivity from whatever level it was last quarter (or, too often, last week). The "let's do 10 percent more" based on longer hours, a breakneck pace, or quantity at the cost of quality especially doesn't appeal to many older workers. But they do want to contribute ideas and add value to the organization. Putting their brainpower to work on problems can pay off handsomely.

Educate supervisors and managers on how to work with the Boomer generation. Regrettably, negative stereotyping of older workers is rampant and, if unchecked, can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies; think of them as unproductive or damaged, treat them that way, and it is possible to unconsciously feed workforce dysfunction. Supervisors and managers should bear in mind that while certain aspects of physical and mental agility may decrease with age, it is a waste of resources to relegate older workers to the corner. Oddly enough, we've seen where a lot of negative age-ist stereotyping is done by supervisors who are Boomers themselves! Remember to work with and through supervisors to help them focus on the positive aspects of their own--as well as their direct reports'--graying.

3. Structure jobs to fit the changing physiology of older workers.
Many older workers experience some decline in strength, flexibility, sensory acuity, and reaction time. While physical ability can somewhat diminish, you can modify the work area to make it more age-compatible. Look at jobs to see whether they can be made less wear-and-tear prone. Make sure signage and lighting are easy for older eyes that may need greater illumination. Plan schedules to ensure that work stresses are spread out as much as possible during the work routine.

(By the way, making these and other modifications also can help your younger workers stay healthier and safer). We have worked with many companies to spot opportunities for simple changes that make work not only safer for older workers, but also much more engaging in the process. Your graying workers can be a great help in making suggestions. After all, they are the ones who experience the work.

4. Teach Boomers how to tangibly adapt to changing personal capacities.
Older bodies can't quite do what they used to do, and while some Boomers would prefer not to notice, they do so at personal peril. It takes more time for an older body to limber up and to recover from exertion. Their ability to direct their attention shifts. Raw physical strength (as well as reaction time) can be weakened. The ability to maintain balance can also be compromised. Taken together, these changes can lead to increases in the number and severity of workplace (and at-home) injuries--strains and sprains, slips/trips/falls, and others--unless you take action.

The good news is that older workers can readily improve their safety and well-being by learning simple mental and physical skills for boosting their leverage, range of motion, ability to direct their attention, and more. We recommend implementing training that addresses the specific motivational and physical needs of Gray Wavers. Experience has shown that, with the right approach, older employees can make dramatic improvements in their safe work behavior in a short time.

Overall, encourage Gray Wavers to take care of themselves. Over the years, everyone forms comfortable habits and routines. While many of these may be beneficial, bad habits also sneak in. Providing them with positive skills helps older employees evaluate and change their habits--such as controlling visual fields, attention shifting, lifting and handling practices, and breath control (which can have positive impact on a wide range of activities).

5. Continue to develop and train older workers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workers age 55 and up receive only one-third as many hours of formal training as workers 45 to 54. Could this be due to some organizations not wanting to "waste money or time" on those nearing the end of their work careers? Or believing (wrongly) that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks"? Numerous studies show you can learn at any age. In fact, take it from me (as someone over 60), old dogs love new tricks. Investing in Gray Wave development not only increases skills and contribution potential; it also sends a message that these workers are valued and important to the organization's performance.

If your company is concerned with making the most of the Gray Wave--by boosting productivity, involvement, and safety--do more than just hang on. Hang-five.

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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