Promoting Wellness Among an Aging Workforce

A perfect storm of an aging workforce - a healthcare network which is growing increasingly more difficult to navigate, and ever-changing policies and mandates which breed a spiral of uncertainty has engulfed our nation.


Unfortunately, until we can reverse aging numerically and biologically and arrive at a consensus as to which platform of healthcare policy is most universally equitable and effective, our nation, its economy and all the businesses, large and small that it comprises, won't be able to weather the storm unscathed. Until then, accountability for improved health falls squarely, yet equally shared between employers and each member of their workforce.

Why Wellness Matters

Nearly two-thirds of the US adult population is employed ostensibly making the workplace as an ideal medium to promote health. The 2010 US Census predicted that by 2016, nearly one-third of the nation's workforce will be over the age of 50. And though life expectancy has consistently trended upwards in the US throughout the past 25 years, our country's aging population has been burdened with a simultaneous increase in healthcare costs.


On average, wellness programs have demonstrated an ROI of $3.27 for every dollar spent (Baicker, 2010), but those figures do not reflect the incalculable benefits associated with promoting and subsequently incorporating physical activity programming among aging workforce.


Adopting physical activity in the workplace among workers with an average age of 42 improved work performance and occupational quality of life, a key link to health during retirement (Mujchin, 2015). Instilling healthy behaviors among soon-to-be retirees shows promise.


A recent study that sought to explain the moderating role of retirement status in physical activity, among other variables, discovered that physical activity is best promoted among those nearing retirement (Van Dyck, 2016). However, it is worth noting that great variation in physical activity exists among those near the retirement age.


Decreases in physical activity were noted among those retiring from a physically demanding job, whereas those retiring from a sedentary job increased their physical activity (Chung, 2009).

Taking steps towards a healthier fitter retirement

Evidence indicates a wide-range of health benefits can be achieved by employees who engage in a worksite walking initiative. These consist of reductions in blood pressure and waist circumference and improvements in perceived well-being, job satisfaction, and productivity (Murphy, 2006).


Walking may be a perfectly-suited physical activity for older adults and previously sedentary populations as it requires no special skills or equipment. Participants can also self-select a pace congruent with their current cardiorespiratory fitness levels thus providing an achievable physical challenge with little risk of injury -- two key determinants of long-term adherence. But how do we engage and sustain physical activity among the aging workforce?

Step One: Create a Supportive Physical Environment

The provision of a supportive environment is one of the most significant influences on health behaviors within the workplace. The accessibility and convenience of walking trails, recreation facilities, and open space as well as aesthetics of stairwells and hallways are all positively associated with higher levels of physical activity and engenders a more "walkable" worksite. Environmental supports may also encourage more incidental walking and active transport.

Step 2: Develop Supportive Organizational Policies

Organizational policies are a key determinant in engaging employees in healthy behaviors. Policies can help boost program support and increase sustainability. Written regulations such as promoting and incentivizing participation and allowing break time during the workday for leisure and physical activity are imperatives for supporting a healthy culture. Employers may also consider offering structured walking clubs or "Walk to Lunch" programs that provide healthy refreshments or recognition for employees who achieve personal milestones.

Step 3: Encourage reasonable goal-setting and incremental progress

The use of wearable technology for self-monitoring has been shown to be an effective method for increasing step counts of older adults (Pal, 2009). Pedometers and mobile applications are low-cost tools that can provide continuous feedback on levels of physical activity and stimulate progressive increases in step totals.


Participants may also self-report daily, weekly, or monthly accumulated activity. However, establishing activity goals for the aging workforce should be approached with caution. Although the literature has referenced the health improving benefits of attaining 5,000 and 10,000 daily step benchmarks, these numbers may not be safely attained or sustainable by some individuals, including those with compromised cardiorespiratory or musculoskeletal health.


Therefore, it is imperative that wellness programming encourages goal-setting that accounts for their medical history and is adaptable to the individual's abilities. Reasonable progress or consistent participation can be rewarded with monetary and lesser tangible fringe incentives, such as hours of paid time off, public acknowledgement of achievement, or flexible, results-oriented work arrangements that are apt to encouraging improved perceptions of the organization and producing a virtuous cycle of employee engagement - aspects that matter to employees at any age.

References

Baicker, K., Cutler, D., & Song, Z. (2010). Workplace wellness programs can generate savings. Health Affairs, 29, 304-311.


Chung, S., Domino, M.E., Stearns, S.C., & Popkin, B.M. (2009). Retirement and physical activity: analyses by occupation and wealth. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36, 5, 422-428.


Gilson, N.D., Puig-Ribera, A., McKenna, J., Brown, W.J., Burton, N.W., & Cooke, C.B. (2009). Do walking strategies to increase physical activity reduce reported sitting in workplaces: a randomized control trial. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 6, 43.


Mujchin, I.G. (2015). Quality of Life of the Health Care Workers in the Pre-Retirement Period from the Private Sector of the Primary Health Care from the Skopje Region. Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences, 3, 514-520.


Murphy, M.H., Murtagh, E.M., Boreham, C.A.G., Hare, L.G., & Nevill, A.M. (2006). The effect of a worksite based walking programme on cardiovascular risk in previously sedentary civil servants. BMC Public Health, 6, 136.


Pal, S., Cheng, C., Egger, G., Binns, C., & Donovan, R. (2009). Using pedometers to increase physical activity in overweight and obese women: a pilot study. BMC Public Health, 9, 309.


Van Dyck, D., Cardon, G., & De Bourdeaudhuij, I. (2016). Longitudinal changes in physical activity and sedentary time in adults around retirement age: what is the moderating role of retirement status, gender and educational level? BMC Public Health, 16, 1125.