By Ellice Switzer Technical Assistance Specialist, EARN As an increasing number of older Americans choose to remain in the workforce past retirement age, there are many implications for employers. One consideration is the changing mental health needs of employees as they age, and how those needs may connect to productivity and engagement in the workplace, prompting employers to adapt wellness and other programming to maximize impact for older workers. Although severe, persistent mental health disorders decline in older populations, new mental health issues may arise especially in relation to lifecycle events such as the death of a loved one, experiencing an illness, or adjusting to an empty nest. 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that the incidence of depression increases by around 4.6% between the ages of 45 and 64, and a 2012 survey conducted by the AARP suggests that people between the ages of 51 to 55 were statistically less happy than any other age group.
One of the more complicated situations facing older workers is the unique position that many find themselves in related to caregiving responsibilities. According to a 2010 study, more than 80% of baby boomers reported feeling “moderate to high” levels of stress due to caregiving responsibilities, and 46.6 percent of younger baby boomers reported that caregiving responsibilities created job-related anxiety. These stressors can have profound implications on employee wellness and productivity for what is sometimes referred to as the “sandwich generation” – people who are caught between assisting adult children, and caring for elderly parents.
What does all of this mean for employers?
As with any challenge, there is an opportunity for employers to reassess policies and practices related to wellness for all employees, which can have a positive impact on the mental health of older workers: Wellness and Work/Life Policies: Employers should consider their current wellness and work/life policies, and evaluate their impact on older workers who may be experiencing mental health issues. For example, does your Employee Assistance (EAP) program provide special screening and services designed for older individuals? Is there an Employee Resource Group for workers of all ages with caregiving responsibilities? Creating these support opportunities and making employees aware of them can greatly increase their access to resources and information that could decrease the potential to negatively impact productivity and engagement. Schedule Input and Flexibility: The Sloan Center on Aging and Work found schedule input and flexibility to be two of the main drivers of employee engagement for workers over the age of 55. Flexibility to take care of personal obligations as-needed can greatly reduce stress and anxiety related to caregiving responsibilities and can decrease the incidence of mental health problems among older workers. Workplace Training: Training all employees to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, and on available resources, can help create an environment that is supportive of employees with mental health issues. Addressing mental health stigma in the workplace not only provides workers with a supportive environment it also provides a means of addressing an aging workforce that statistically will have to manage mental and physical disabilities. Beyond productivity, the right tools and resources at the right time might also save lives.