A touch of grey: Time to become age-friendly
Make changes to help HCWs of all ages
The average age of an American nurse is 50. By 2020, half of all registered nurses will be 65.1 As the demand for health services continues to grow with the aging of the U.S. population, the people who care for them are aging, too. That’s why hospitals are ground zero in the new push for an age-friendly workplace.
Two leading voices for occupational health and safety have teamed up to spur employers to address the aging of the workforce with policies that will benefit all workers. The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) held a "Summit on Advancing the Health Protection and Promotion of an Aging Workforce" in 2012 and recently issued a report to help guide employers in creating an age-friendly workplace. (See box on p.106.)
They start with an important premise: Don’t target older workers, but create adaptations that will benefit them and their younger colleagues.
"We need to focus on [encouraging] healthy aging, even starting when someone comes into their workforce in their 20’s," says Ron Loeppke, MD, president of U.S. Preventive Medicine and president of ACOEM.
In fact, older workers have occupational health needs that are very similar to that of younger workers. A study of workers’ compensation claims found that the injuries and costs of treatment are similar for workers 35 years and older. (See related article on p.105.)
"One of the myths is that health care costs for older workers are higher than they are for younger workers," says Anita Schill, PhD, MPH, MA, senior science adviser at NIOSH and co-manager of the agency’s Total Worker Health program.
Many younger workers have health risks, such as obesity, and chronic conditions, such as diabetes, she notes. "We’re actually seeing more chronic disease in younger people than we ever have before," she says.
Health and work are interconnected
As a centerpiece of an age-friendly workplace, employers should integrate health promotion with occupational health and safety, the summit experts agreed.
"All of us in the occupational health and safety specialty of health care have acknowledged for years that health impacts work, and work impacts health," says Loeppke. "People don’t leave their health risks at home in the morning when they come to work and they don’t leave their work risks at work when they come home. We need to find ways to promote a 24-7 culture of health and shift the paradigm."
For example, shift work and long hours lead to fatigue, which is associated with a greater risk of occupational injury, says Schill. Shift work and sleep disruption also have been linked to diabetes and obesity, she says.
The summit report suggests providing a flexible work schedule to accommodate older workers. But a new perspective on scheduling could produce a wide range of benefits, she says. "There’s an opportunity here to look at this age-old problem of shift work," she says.
NIOSH’s Total Worker Health program provides resources for integrating wellness programs with traditional employee health services. For example, the agency suggests incorporating joint health and arthritis prevention with ergonomics programs, tobacco cessation with respiratory protection programs, and work risks with preventive health screenings. (Related information is available at www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/totalworkerhealth/.)
The SafeWell Guidelines, developed by the Center for Work, Health and Well-being at the Harvard University School of Public Health, provides a template specifically for health care organizations to integrate health promotion and occupational health. (See related article in HEH, September 2012, p. 103. More information is also available at http://centerforworkhealth.sph.harvard.edu/.)
Adapt to needs of older workers
The specific challenges for aging workers also can trigger improvements in the workplace that will benefit all workers, says Schill.
Improved lighting helps those who have diminished vision whether they are health care workers or hospital visitors. Slip-resistant floors reduce the risk of falls. "Employers should really be motivated to look at these issues and see how they can improve the work environment," she says.
In fact, addressing the needs of older workers is just one way of accommodating the physical demands of health care work, says Loeppke.
Employers should take a positive approach to retaining older workers, he says. "We’re all recognizing that as the workforce ages, we have to embrace age-friendly adaptations," he says. "It’s a tremendous asset to have people that have the institutional knowledge and experience in any given industry to continue to be healthy and productive at work."
That is especially true in health care, which is the fastest growing segment of the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"The reality is your workplace is aging, so just go ahead and address it," says Loeppke. "Incorporate age-friendly elements in health protection and health promotion programs. Be proactive about it, embrace it. This should just be an ongoing part of the safety and health training.
- Harrington L, Heidcamp M. The aging workforce: Challenges for the health care industry workforce. Issue brief of the NTAR Leadership Center, New Brunswick, NJ, March 2013. Available at http://ow.ly/nQYmI. Accessed on July 5, 2013.
- Loeppke RR, Schill AL, Chosewood L, et al. Advancing workplace health protection and promotion for an aging workforce. J Occup Environ Med 2013;55:500-506.