Healthy, motivated, productive: Maintaining work potential up until old age

Some employees are striving to work longer than regulated by national pension laws. Other employees prefer to quit work earlier, but are obliged to continue working. Individual decisions will become more difficult in future. An increasing life expectancy and falling birth rates in most developed industrial countries force us to work longer than ever before. Germany is especially vulnerable to demographic change. Facing this irrefutable trend, German companies in the metal and electrical industry assigned a project to Karlheinz Sonntag, organisational psychologist from Heidelberg University, to design measures how to preserve high productivity of elder employees. The resulting 68-page study ‘Employees potential in the light of a prolonged working lifetime’ provides background information and useful hints for employers as well as employees. In order to reach a long lasting professional collaboration both sides, employers and employees, need to take over responsibility. Employees should acknowledge the importance of an active life, full of sports, extra-professional interests and commitment, self-responsibility and a high level of health awareness. Reduced sensory and cognitive skills due to ageing do not necessarily have to lead to deteriorations in performance. Older employees score on other qualities and deserve the employer’s appreciation. They have many years of experience and expertise at their disposal, are more resilient to stress than younger employees and give the company and its business stability and continuity. Executives can foster motivation and commitment of those employees through respect and an unbiased support. The successful integration of older workers can lead to improvements in sales, cost reduction and earnings, as well as a reduction in staff turnover and recruitment costs as further studies demonstrate.

Companies, on the other side, need to provide a stimulating work environment and flexible working formats; the integration of professional and individual private life designs will provide a big additional advantage. Productivity expectations, time pressure and low autonomy increase the risk of illnesses, and companies should therefore actively incorporate age-specific features such as individual time schedules, an active inclusion of prior knowledge and experience and the relief of memory in learning and work processes into daily work routines. Negative stereotypes and prejudices towards age and ageing showed – just as stereotypes about gender, ethnicity or disability – negative effects on motivation and productivity, and therefore should be reduced to a minimum. Companies that recognise their workforce as the most important resource and promote individual potential will benefit of healthy, motivated and successful employees – no matter how old they are.