Academic journal article Generations

Policy Levers May Improve Older Workers' Perceptions of Their Psychosocial Work Environment

Academic journal article Generations

Policy Levers May Improve Older Workers' Perceptions of Their Psychosocial Work Environment

Article excerpt

'As America's workforce ages, it is critical to understand the ways in which work and the workplace affect older workers' health and well-being. A growing body of research concerns best practices for integrating the work environment with successful aging, or workplace practices that promote active engagement with work and reduce the risks of disease and disability at older ages (Zacher, 2015). Jobs with undesirable working conditions have been linked to deteriorating physical and mental health and early retirement (Sonnega et al., 2018). Beyond improving worker health, identifying factors that enable workers to extend their work lives could alleviate pressure on the global economic and social infrastructure.

Occupational health research has found that it is not only the physical and psychological demands of work, but also its organizational structure that plays a key role in promoting mental and physical health at older ages. These studies show that a positive psychosocial work environment (PWE) that gives individuals greater control over how to best meet the physical and psychosocial demands of their jobs is crucial to promoting health and "work ability" at older ages (Karasek and Theorell, 1990) (work ability can be defined as the sum of current physical, mental, and interpersonal abilities to meet workplace demands).

Stressful jobs with high job demands and low job control have been associated with a range of physical and mental health problems, including hypertension and cognitive function (Schmitz, 2016). One high-demand example is a line cook in a busy fast food restaurant who must make food correctly and quickly every time. This worker would also have low control because they could not choose how or when the food is made. As a result, he or she may be more stressed than a worker who has autonomy over their daily workload.

Because the PWE is a critical component of health and labor force attachment, understanding the mechanisms behind workers' perceptions of their PWE is important to developing workplace policy interventions. This article examines the demographic, socioeconomic, and workplace characteristics associated with aging workers' perceptions of their PWE. It compares selfreports of workers' PWE with corresponding expert ratings for their occupations, and assesses whether certain factors were more strongly associated with individuals reporting a better or worse PWE than indicated by the expert ratings.

Our results show that worse reports of psychosocial workplace characteristics (autonomy, work recognition, decision freedom, and advancement opportunities) are associated with work-related factors that better policies could affect, including human resource practices, job lock (the inability to freely leave a job due to impending loss of health or retirement benefits), and workplace discrimination, as opposed to gender, race, marital status, occupation, or socioeconomic standing.

These results are encouraging for employers and policy makers because they suggest that there are ways to adjust workplace environments to improve workers' PWE perceptions, and perhaps, as a result, their health and labor force attachment. Employers and policy makers cannot change aspects of individual personalities or life circumstances, but they can, for example, introduce policies that reduce job lock by providing universal healthcare. This may ameliorate negative workplace perceptions, both by alleviating ineffective and unsatisfactory job matches and by increasing preventive care, which would allow individuals healthier working lives into older ages.

Positive PWEs Improve Workers' Health

The PWE refers to psychological job demands, job control social support, and intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that influence behavior and development in the workplace (Karasek and Theorell, 1990; Siegrist, 1996). The Job DemandControl (JDC) model suggests that the primary source of job stress in the modern workplace comes from an imbalance between demands and workers' ability to control their activities and skills usage (Karasek and Theorell, 1990). …

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