The decade of healthy aging must not ignore the mental health of older workers

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

This is a gap that employers need to proactively address.

Not only are people living longer, they are also working later in life. About one in four people over the age of 65 is employed in the United States today. Older workers will soon be the fastest growing segment of the workforce – a trend that is only set to increase. The Global Coalition on Aging states that by 2050 the number of people over 60 will exceed 2 billion. Yet only 15% of companies 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 “joying my job or enjoying my job” is an almost as strong motivator. This is good news for employers looking to retain talent.

Thousands of companies are struggling with a tight labor market and record numbers of workers are resigning in the “big layoff”. Experienced workers are in high demand. However, employers are often unprepared to address the specific needs of older workers.

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

What steps can employers take to support the mental health of the growing population of older workers? Three workplace intervention strategies can address the mental health and employability of older workers.

  1. Provision of health checks and advice to employees. Regular measurements and screenings are powerful tactics to monitor and account for the work ability and health of employees. A recent study evaluating workplace mental health interventions for older populations found positive behavior change and reduced health risks through health counseling. The result: increased overall work ability and mentally healthier employees. Regular screening can gather health data and formulate company policies so older workers can get the support they need.
  2. Reducing age discrimination and combating unconscious bias. Age discrimination can lead to stereotypes that older workers are more likely to be ill or resist innovation. This age bias can make it harder to retain experienced employees or attract new ones. In fact, one study found that it takes people over 55 about three months longer to find a job than younger workers in the same position. Strategies to encourage hiring include using traditional – not just digital – application forms, including older workers on recruitment boards, and conducting equity checks on both pay and performance.
  3. prevent burnout. Workers of all generations, including Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers, report higher levels of burnout. Researchers also regard burnout as a measure and collective term for broad psychological problems. To address these challenges, companies must give employees control and connection by fostering meaningful relationships between colleagues and replacing old work models with new solutions designed for rest and flexibility. Relationships and connections become even more difficult in hybrid or remote work situations, requiring special attention to make and maintain connections.

Employers have a duty to support their employees, no matter how young or old they are. The world population is aging, but mental health care for older workers in the workplace remains inadequate. Older people represent an important and growing segment of the workforce with their own unique perspective and needs. Keeping older workers mentally strong, healthy and productive is becoming increasingly important for organizations everywhere. If companies want to foster an inclusive, multi-generational workforce, they start by investing in the mental health of all their employees.

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