Ergonomica Consultant Sydney & Illawarra | Ageing Workforce

Working age or ageing at work?

18 Oct 2018 Katrina James

When I was at school I couldn’t wait to do some kind of work – paid work. Grown up work. I wanted to be part of the world that made things and be part of the world in a way didn’t feel was possible as a school girl.

Now I have been working for many years. I have had many different types of work. All have had the common theme of providing a service to organisations and people.

I like the world of work and participation in a society. Three years ago I left my corporate family. At the time it felt like a big loss. Now it feels like a big gain.

Age was possibly one of the reasons I was “tapped on the shoulder”. Some friends and acquaintances assumed I would retire. I have in my own way. Retired from a full time corporate job, now I am well established in my own consultancy, Think Ergonomics.

When I was exiting the corporate workplace, so were many others. This included men I had coached and trained in my role as an ergonomist. At an age where the company was ready for them to retire, the men were not always as willing or prepared.

Older manual workers are often selected for “early retirement” during a business restructure because they may already – or are more likely to incur – have a workplace injury.

Older white-collar workers are often selected because it is be assumed they are slower and can’t keep up with strategic thinking or long hours. I know I can take longer to provide the answer to a workplace problem, but my depth of problem solving is far greater than it was twenty years ago. All the accumulated knowledge and experience takes time to put through the sieve.

The difference in age and problem solving was highlighted when I attended a short course at a university. On the third day we were placed in groups and given real life workplace problems to solve. I was astounded that one group of younger professionals went through the problem solving process, then announced it was too difficult and could never be solved. The groups with a mix of ages provided sturdy long term solutions or further research options.

Whether your team is made up of manual operators or professionals, a mix of life and job experience is an advantage. Life experience and history bring a knowledge bank to be utilised in daily problem solving.

When the work is predominantly manual the old adage that it takes a strong young man to do the job does not help the man or the company. The strong young man wears out his back, shoulders and knees. The injured man is potentially left without a job. They get replaced and the cycle starts again.

The best answer lies in the design of the work and an approach to managing the ageing workforce. Keeping a good spread of ages across even a small team will mean better input to daily problem solving and approaches to the job. The older workers can pass on their skills and the younger workers can input ideas from their world view.

Part of this is understanding where the physically heavy, hard aspects of the job lie. If you ask your team, the answer will be pretty consistent.

How can some of these jobs be made somewhat easier? Does that valve have to be pulled so hard? Can it be re-engineered to have a switch? Does a shovel have to be used to clean up that spill? Can a small machine be used instead?

In a maintenance workshop, a worker was struggling with lifting heavy motors onto a bench. Once the motor was on the bench, it was stuck in that position. Much discussion was had with the engineer about installing a lifting beam and hoist. After presenting a return on investment, the engineer agreed to put in the hoist. A few months later when I visited the worker to see how it was going, his first comment was – now I know I can do this job until I retire. He was 45.

Not all answers have to cost a lot of money. However, without spending the money on changing out some of the physically tough jobs, your profits will be spent on injuries. Australian worker’s compensation statistics guarantee that.

The longer view is to consider how your business can value the potential longevity of working lives. Create a fair exchange with someone who is about to devote their working life to you.

I encourage you to review the age demographics of teams in your business. Who would you replace and why? Think Ergonomics can assist supporting your business or team on how to manage your best workforce so that you can keep them on the job until they are really ready to retire.