The Decade Of Healthy Aging Cannot Ignore Mental Health Of Older Workers

The United Nations Decade of Healthy Aging (2021–2030) is underway – the first global effort to help the rapidly growing population of older people stay healthy, independent, and productive not just into their 60s, but into their 80s, 90s and beyond. Yet for all its welcome efforts to combat ageism and create age-friendly environments, the UN’s Healthy Ageing Action Plan makes no mention of mental health.

This is a gap employers need to proactively address.

People are not just living longer, they are also working later in life. About one in four people 65 and over are now in the US workforce. Older workers will soon be the fastest growing segment of the workforce – a trend that will only gather momentum. The Global Coalition on Aging finds that the world’s 60+ population will be above 2 billion by 2050. Yet only 15% of businesses have developed plans for the aging population.

While “need the money” is a common reason for rising labor force participation among older people, an AARP study found that “enjoy the job or enjoy working” is almost as powerful a motivator. This is good news for employers looking to retain talent.

Thousands of companies are grappling with a tight labor market and record numbers of employees are leaving their jobs in the “Great Resignation”. Experienced workers are in high demand. Yet employers are often unprepared to address the unique needs of an older workforce.

While the mental health struggles of younger workers are well-documented, older employees face their own mental health challenges. According to the Mental Health Index by Total Brain, One Mind, and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, workers aged 40-59 saw the highest increases in stress, anxiety and feelings of negativity from June to August in 2021.

What actions can employers take to support the mental health of the rising group of older workers? Three workplace intervention strategies can address older employees’ mental health and work ability.

  1. Providing Health Checks and Counselling for Employees. Regular measurements and screenings are strong tactics to monitor and address employees’ work ability and health status. A recent study assessing workplace mental health interventions for older populations found a positive behavioral change and lowered health risks through health counseling. The result: increased overall work capacity and mentally healthier employees. Regular screenings can collect health status data and shape organizational policies, enabling older workers to get the support they need.
  2. Mitigating Ageism and Addressing Unconscious Bias. Age-based discrimination can result in stereotypes that older workers may be more likely to take sick days or are resistant to innovation. This age bias can make it harder to retain current experienced workers or attract new ones. In fact, one study found that individuals over-55 may take about three months longer to find a job than a younger worker in the same position. Strategies to boost hiring include leveraging traditional—not just digital—job application forms, involving older workers on recruiting panels and conducting equity audits for both pay and performance.
  3. Preventing Burnout. Workers across every generation including Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers are reporting higher levels of burnout. Burnout is also recognized by researchers to be a measurement and catch-all for broad mental health struggles. To combat these challenges, companies must give employees control and connection by promoting meaningful relationships among colleagues and replacing old models of work with new solutions focused on recovery and flexibility. Relationships and connection are made even more challenging in hybrid or remote work situations, so these need special attention to create and maintain connection.

Employers have an obligation to support their workers, no matter how young or old. The world’s population is aging, but workplace mental health support for older workers remains lacking. Older individuals represent a critical and growing segment of the workforce with their own unique perspective and set of needs. Keeping older workers mentally strong, healthy, and productive is increasingly essential to businesses everywhere. If businesses want to foster an inclusive, intergenerational workforce, it starts by investing in the mental health of all their workers.

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