In the US, people are living longer and healthier lives, which allows them to work for more years. Increasingly, employers are recognizing the value of older workers and are implementing policies to attract and retain them. Flexible work hours, part-time positions, and phased retirement are several of the accommodations that attract older workers or recently retired workers to rejoin the workforce. But, the aging workforce comes with some challenges.
Comorbidity and Workers’ Compensation
In our article, Comorbidity and Aging, we looked at the impact that comorbidities in older workers can have on workers’ compensation claims. While workers of all ages can and do have comorbidity conditions, the occurrence of pre-existing comorbidities (such as diabetes, heart disease, and mental health issues) among older workers is higher and the risk of developing comorbidities increases as we age. Exact statistics on comorbidities in older workers are hard to gather, but in 2018, 33% of US adults between the ages of 45 and 64 had two or more chronic conditions. This number increased to 64% for people over age 65 (Center for Disease Control).
Fortunately, there are relatively simple steps we can take to prevent or manage these conditions and maintain a high quality of life. Employers can play a key role in keeping their workers healthy and on the job. This article explores ways to prevent future comorbidities and manage existing comorbidities in older employees through a combination of lifestyle changes and workplace interventions.
Healthy Diet and Exercise
Adopting a healthy lifestyle is crucial for maintaining good health as we age. A balanced diet and regular physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases (Center for Disease Control).
Diet: A healthy diet for healthy aging involves a variety of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Enjoying a wide variety of foods from each food group helps reduce the risk of developing diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease (National Institute on Aging).
Exercise: An important part of healthy aging is keeping the body strong and flexible. A combination of aerobic activity, balance, strength, and flexibility exercises are recommended. Regular exercise can assist in weight management, better sleep, and overall mental health.
Check-ups and Disease Management
Regular Checkups/Medication/Vaccinations: Regular medical check-ups can help detect health issues early and manage them effectively. Regular doctor visits will also help to manage medications and ensure recommended vaccinations are given to prevent infections and serious illnesses that can be especially dangerous for older adults.
Chronic Disease Self-Management Programs: Chronic Disease Self-Management Education (CDSME) programs are designed to help older adults and adults with disabilities manage their chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, chronic pain, and depression. Most of these programs are small group, workshop-based programs offered in community-based settings like senior centers, area agencies on aging, churches, libraries, hospitals, and even online or by telephone (Administration for Community Living). These programs focus on building multiple health behaviors and generalizable skills such as goal-setting, decision-making, problem-solving, and self-monitoring. (National Council on Aging).
Mental Health and Sleep
Mental Health: Maintaining mental health is a significant factor in healthy aging. Regular social interaction, mental exercises, and stress management can help. Addressing mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness) as they arise, results in decreased emotional suffering, improved physical health, lessened disability, and a better quality of life for older adults and their families (American Psychological Association).
Sleep: Adequate sleep is essential for overall health and plays an important role in cognitive function, as well as physical and mental health. In fact, regular good sleep can lead to improved mental health, preventing age-related cognitive decline and dementia. It also helps prevent depression, a common mental health disorder among older individuals (Des Moines University).
Staying Safe at Work
Regardless of age, all employees benefit from a well-designed workplace. Thoughtful, employee-centered choices can increase safety, as well as job satisfaction and productivity.
Workplace Adaptations: There are many products that have been developed to keep workers safer while at their jobs, and most will have a positive impact for older employees. Ergonomic chairs, computer screens and keyboards, safer flooring, optimal lighting, sit/stand workstations, and modern information technology software should be considered by employers (Center for Disease Control).
Safety Training: Older workers tend to be more cautious on the job and more likely to follow safety rules and regulations. Regular safety training can reinforce these behaviors and ensure all employees are aware of the best practices for workplace safety (Center for Disease Control).
Preventative Programs: There are many opportunities to impact the health of employees while at work. Consider investing in lifestyle education such as tobacco cessation assistance, screenings for health risks, exercise programming, onsite medical care, and easy-to-access healthy food options. These solutions can have large benefits if implemented properly with worker input and support throughout all levels of management. Moreover, these strategies can benefit workers regardless of age (Center for Disease Control).
Being aware of the complexity of comorbidities in an older workforce allows employers to be prepared and manage some of these challenges. Seemingly minor changes in lifestyle choices can have a critical impact on the current and future health of all employees, including older workers. In addition, simple and intentional changes to the workplace can have positive effects on workers’ safety and productivity. Together, these adjustments can manage the presence of comorbidities in our aging population and help keep employees healthier for a longer time.