Less physical risks and stress among older people

Older workers in France are less subject to adverse physical and mental stress factors than their younger colleagues. Nevertheless, according to a recent analysis of survey results over a 15-year period, they report increasing work demands and feel that the overall quality of their working conditions has deteriorated.

DARES, the French Ministry of Labour’s research and statistics unit, has published survey results which indicate that the work of employees continues to be physically demanding. Pace of work has increased, along with levels of mental stress. These findings are based on employee responses to surveys on working conditions in France conducted in 1984, 1991 and 1998. While workers aged 50 or over reported less physical strain than younger age groups, their overall situation had deteriorated over the 15-year time period.

Older people are less exposed than their younger colleagues to most adverse physical factors in the workplace, such as physical strain, jolts or vibrations, eye strain, extreme temperatures, etc.

It is the combination of a number of risk factors, rather than any one particular factor, that causes problems. The older the employee, the less likely they are to report physical strain: hence in 1998, employees aged 50 or over reported an average of 2.1 risk factors, whereas 25-29 years olds reported a level of 2.5 and the figure for 20-25 year olds was 2.9 (see table below).

In the same way, older employees are less prone to occupational accidents, due to their lower exposure to physical risk factors at work and to their experience. The rate of accidents among this group was 6.3% in 1998, compared with 8.5% among the workforce as a whole.

Risk factors and exposure to accidents at work
Risk factors and accidents, 1998
Age group Number of risk factors Exposure to risk factors and work accidents
20-25 2.9 8.5%
25-29 2.5 8.5%
50 2.1 6.3%

Source: Dares, Working conditions survey, 1998

However, according to views expressed in the survey, since the 1980s, working conditions for older people have deteriorated, as they have for younger workers. Over time, the same age groups are reporting increased levels of physical stress and occupational risks.

Older employees are supposed to be less subject to atypical work schedules. Yet, since 1984, such schedules have increased almost as much for older workers as for all employees, except for Saturday work from which they are protected.

Increased work demands for all workers

The introduction of more technology in the workplace, increased demands from superiors and pressures from external demand are responsible for accelerating the pace of work for all workers, although to a less extent for older workers. It is clear, however, that work has become increasingly demanding over the years for all age groups.

For older people, the pace of work is not as subject to technical demands. It is also less dictated by market forces (external demand from the public or customers). However, apparently time pressures do not lessen with age. Employees aged 50 or over complained as much as their younger peers of ‘having to rush all the time’.

More autonomy and less mental stress

Older people enjoy greater autonomy in their work, due to their broader professional experience. However, they are less able to rely on team support: they report that they often have to ‘manage alone’ in difficult situations.

However, despite their greater responsibilities, they are not subject to more mental stress as a result. Older employees tend to report less often than their younger colleagues that they worry about the consequences of a mistake. They also report less conflict, either in their relations with the public or with colleagues and line managers.

For all age groups, the scope for initiative by employees in terms of their responsibilities increased in recent times (during the third survey period 1991-1998): they no longer felt obliged to follow instructions to the letter and were less tied to deadlines.

Methodology

The data presented in this report are based on working conditions surveys conducted in 1984, 1991 and 1998 by DARES (Direction de l’animation de la recherche, des études et des statistiques ). The questionnaire was submitted to around 22,000 employees (representative sample of the active working population by sector, profession, age, gender, and socio-professional categories).

Reference

Guignon, N. et Pailhé, A., Premières Synthèses , May 2004.

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