Ensuring a Healthy Older Workforce: With the Workforce Growing Older, Tailoring Health Promotion and Wellness Programs to Those 55 and Older Will Become Ever More Important If Businesses Are to Maintain Productivity and Performance

By McMahan, Shari | The Journal of Employee Assistance, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Ensuring a Healthy Older Workforce: With the Workforce Growing Older, Tailoring Health Promotion and Wellness Programs to Those 55 and Older Will Become Ever More Important If Businesses Are to Maintain Productivity and Performance


McMahan, Shari, The Journal of Employee Assistance


America's workforce is aging rapidly, with more than 58 million workers over the age of 45 expected to draw paychecks during 2006. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1998 and 2008 the number of civilian workers age 55 and over will increase by half, while those 25-54 will increase by only 5.5 percent and those 16-24 will actually decrease by 2.8 percent (Fullerton 1999). These trends will lead to a proportionally smaller pool of younger workers.

Magnifying the effects of these demographic changes are laws that protect aging workers, further ensuring that U.S. businesses will continue to employ an unprecedented number of older people in the years to come. The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act prevents workers over 45 from being denied employment based solely on age, while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires employers to make job modifications to accommodate workers with sensory or manual deficits such as hearing or vision loss.

COST OF PHYSICAL FRAILTY

These deficits are indicative of a larger truth, which is that as people grow older they become increasingly susceptible to disease and their resistance to harmful exposures declines. Additionally, their injuries are more likely to be severe or even fatal than those of younger workers (Runge 1993). Key findings from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries reveal that the elderly have a higher risk of workplace fatalities relative to their share of employment.

Workers over 55 also have higher fatality rates from transportation accidents and falls compared to all other age categories (Toscano and Windau 1993). Some of the leading reasons for falls include environmental hazards, loss of physical fitness, and adverse effects of medications (Tibbitts 1996). Falls are often devastating, resulting in substantial morbidity and psychological trauma. Overall, the annual cost of falls and other incidents stemming from physical frailty is estimated to be between $54 billion and $80 billion and is expected to increase to over $132 billion by the year 2030 unless disability rates among older adults are reduced.

Arthritis, high blood pressure, visual and hearing impairments, and obesity are among the more common disabling afflictions of older individuals (Healthcare Hazard Management Monitor 2002). For example, arthritis affects only about 50 in 1,000 people ages 18 to 44, but this ratio leaps to approximately 241 in 1,000 among those 45 to 64 and 453 in 1,000 among people 65 to 74. Obesity is also widespread--among individuals ages 55 to 64, more than one in four men and one in three women are obese.

Compounding these fatality, injury, and illness rates are data suggesting that although elderly workers are less likely than their younger colleagues to get hurt seriously enough to lose work time, they often take twice as long to return to their jobs (Walton 2001; Douglas and Muran 2000). This time away from work may contribute to increased economic burdens on workers' compensation programs, the U.S. health care system, corporations, and individuals. Two factors contribute to the length of time needed to recuperate from an injury. First, older workers sustain disabling conditions such as broken bones, fractures and multiple injuries more often than younger workers; a Department of Labor study indicated that the rate of fractures triples as a person ages from 25-34 years old to 64 years of age (Rothenberg, Mooney, and Curtis 1997). Second, these and other disabling conditions require more time to heal in older individuals (Garg 1991).

As America ages, workers with impairments and functional limitations will make up a larger percentage of our workforce (Zwerling et al. 2003). Already, approximately one-fifth of those ages 55-64 are limited in their ability to carry out major work activities. Most chronic conditions, however, are not debilitating or can be alleviated with improved diet and/or exercise, and even workers with chronic health conditions can remain employed in full-time positions, in a modified work environment, or on a reduced work schedule. …

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