Creating a flexible working environment for older workers

A recent study has shown mature-age employees are increasingly seeking flexible work arrangements. Is your business set up to cater for this?
Australia is an ageing nation and business leaders must prepare for the effect an older population will have on the workplace.

The Australian Institute of Management said in a report last year that 14 per cent of people in the country are currently aged 65 or over. This proportion has doubled since 1970 and is predicted to reach 23 per cent by 2050.

However, people aren’t just getting older; advances in medical care and technology also mean they are staying healthier and more active for longer. A consequence of this is that the percentage of older staff as part of the workforce total is increasing – and will continue to get higher.

Approximately one-third of over-55s are currently employed, up from 25 per cent a decade ago. Furthermore, the workforce participation rate could be set to plummet in the next 10 years as up to 1 million people intend to retire.

Retirement choices

A recent University of South Australia (UniSA) study revealed older workers are now considering a range of options when approaching retirement age.

Traditionally, individuals would either leave work completely or continue in their role. However, now mature-age staff often decide to take hiatuses, move jobs or switch back and forth between retirement and employment.

The federal government last year announced the retirement age would increase to 70 by 2030, which is making people’s job exit choices even more complex.

UniSA’s Centre for Human Resources polled a number of workers aged over 45 and found employees tend to fall into one of three groups: true retirees, people who take an extended break before returning to the workplace and job changers.

“For true retirees, work intensification – reflected in higher workloads, faster pace and greater responsibilities – influenced their decision,” said lead researcher Dr Sanjee Perera.

“Personal factors, such as health issues and age milestones, also played an important ‘shock’ role in the retirement decision.”

Staying on

People who decide to put off retirement may still choose to shake up their employment status, with sabbaticals proving popular with many respondents.

According to Dr Perera, those who opt for an extended break from their jobs sometimes want to stop working indefinitely, but may not have the resources and money to do so.

“When confronted with work intensification, hiatus takers requested workload reductions or flexible work arrangements,” he stated.

“Negotiation failure acted as a shock, leading to hiatus takers reassessing their work options.”

However, the motivations for individuals who look for a new role are different. The UniSA research revealed their problems were more employer-specific and staff were simply unhappy with the organisation in which they currently worked.

A primary challenge for this group was long periods of unemployment before finding a new position. This could be due to discrimination against older workers, despite their proven experience and skills.

The importance of retaining mature-age staff

As the workforce continues to age, there is likely to be a significant skills gap in the market as baby boomers start retiring and younger employees take time to grow into their roles.

This could create problems for a number of industries, with AIM claiming that education, public services and utilities could suffer in particular. Retaining mature-age staff may help to plug these experience gaps.

However, Australian businesses appear to be doing a poor job of providing an attractive workplace environment for the nation’s mature-age employees.

“We found it was primarily work intensification and work and personal decisions that drove exit decisions, meaning employers who offer flexible and supportive work practices may be able to retain their older workers,” Dr Perera stated.

Some of the benefits of a more diverse workforce include:

  • Improved productivity
  • Better decision making
  • Greater insight into different markets
  • Higher morale
  • Closer connection to consumers

Retention strategies

Businesses can implement various strategies to retain older staff, with flexible working arrangements an important factor in maintaining employee engagement.

AIM suggested several methods that could prevent key personnel from retiring early or switching companies, such as:

  • Promote part-time hours and flexible leave options
  • Establish a scheme for re-hiring retired workers
  • Offer new projects, subsidised study and other strategies to avoid job stagnation
  • Encourage a diverse and supportive workplace culture
  • Provide career breaks

While statistics have shown older workers are the most loyal, one-quarter of over-60s still intend to switch jobs this year. To avoid a potential exodus of your most experienced staff, businesses may want to consider the above strategies in order to avoid dissatisfaction among mature-age employees.