Seeking the upside of an aging work force

Conference sets agenda for research

Aging doesn't have to mean a time of decline for the nursing work force. But it will take proactive measures to keep experienced nurses at the bedside — and to keep them safe, says Kate McPhaul, PhD, MPH, RN, assistant professor with the Work and Health Research Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore.

Trends show that older workers actually have fewer injuries, but those injuries tend to be more severe, she says. Still, there's little research about the age that nurses retire or why they retire, McPhaul says.

While it's important to boost the enrollment of nursing programs to encourage more young people to enter the field, it's also important to retain the older nurse, she says. "I think it's in everyone's best interest to think about what it would take to keep nurse safe and comfortable and working as long as they can," says McPhaul, a speaker at the conference on "Healthy Aging: Anticipating the Occupational Safety and Health Needs of an Increasingly Aging Workforce."

The February conference was sponsored by the Society for Occupational and Environmental Health and the Association of Occupational and Environmental Health Clinics, with funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

New research could help employers shape the workplace to make it more amenable to older workers, says McPhaul.

"You can't change a person's age, but you can change the way a person's work is organized," she says. "[That includes] working hours, length of shift, management style, team style, and relationships with supervisors."

For example, older workers could be teamed with younger workers to share their experience and skills, she says.

Retention program woos nurses to stay

Clearly, aging brings physical limitations, such as arthritis and poorer vision. But older workers may benefit from strong support networks and a greater sense of control in the workplace, says McPhaul. "What we see in some of our data is that the older nurses do have more autonomy than younger nurses, as well as improved relationships," she says.

Employers can enhance those positive aspects of the work environment as they seek to retain older workers, says McPhaul.

Sinai Hospital of Baltimore created a Senior RN Retention Committee and brainstormed about rewards and recognitions that older nurses would appreciate. That effort resulted in an initiative that provides extra vacation and scheduling perks.

"We're providing people with a lot of benefit after 20 or 25 years of practice at Sinai," says Bonnie Faust, MS, RN, MBA, CRRN, director of patient care for the departments of rehabilitation and psychiatry and chair of the Senior RN Retention Committee. "It was a big boost for the nurses to see how appreciated they truly are."

The hospital also has lift teams to assist nurses and considers the needs of older workers when buying new technology or renovating space, Faust says. For example, the hospital has special computer screens for employees with low vision, she says.

The retention program provides tiered benefits at milestone anniversary years — 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30 years with Sinai. For example, at 10 years of service at Sinai, nurses receive an extra week of vacation during that year, which they can take as a payout. At 30 years of service, nurses receive the maximum benefits: five weeks of extra vacation in that year (or the paid equivalent) as well as priority scheduling for two weeks of vacation. Those with 30 years of service also are relieved of any commitment for working on holidays or weekends.

Sinai hopes that its experienced nurses will stay and share their knowledge with new, younger workers.

"The older nurses with a lot of experience in very specialized areas are the ones we ask to assist in the orientation of new nurses," says Faust. "They have the knowledge and skill that years and years of practice can afford you."

(Editor's note: More information about the conference on the aging work force is available at www.soeh.org/meeting/meeting.html.)