EMCC European Monitoring Centre on Change

Inclusion of ageing workers: Four company case examples

The European population is ageing. Measures to reduce the burden of work should be able both to help prevent premature wear and tear on employees who are still young, and to make work easier for older workers. The four company case examples have addressed these issues by rethinking work organisation, adapting working time schedules, training and recruiting older employees. The companies operate in different sectors - electrical, financial services, health and steel - in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

The European working population is ageing. It is expected that there will be a 20% increase in the 50-64 age category over the next 15 years. Within the Lisbon strategy, the European Union (EU) has set itself the goal to increase the work participation rate of this age group to reach 50% by 2010. The profile of the EU workforce is older now due to other factors too. For example, sectoral restructuring has resulted in the deferral of planned recruitment, pre-retirement schemes are not as prevalent as they used to be, and the postponement of pension age is currently being considered in several Member States.

Research shows that workers can become ‘too old’ for their job at early ages in their working life due to the nature of work. This lack of fit between workers’ capacities and job demands can lead to health problems and exclusion from work. Whereas some years ago companies facing such problems - often highlighted by higher absenteeism in specific jobs - could replace workers ‘too old for the job’ by younger ones, such a policy has become more difficult since so called ‘soft jobs’ have disappeared. Instead of replacing people to fit existing workstations, companies must nowadays rethink work to adapt it to ageing workers.

Four company case examples: SSAB Tunnplåt, Siemens AS, Uppsala University Hospital and Realkredit Danmark

The following company case examples have addressed these issues by acting primarily in three areas, either in combination or separately:

  • rethinking the organisation of work, the division of tasks, and the use and availability of information technology;
  • adapting working time schedules;
  • providing adequate training.

SSAB Tunnplåt: Occupational health and well-being

Company background

SSAB Tunnplåt (SSAB Strip Products) is part of Swedish Steel (SSAB) and consists of two steel plants located in Luleå and Borlänge.

SSAB Tunnplåt’s interest in ageing employees began over 15 years ago when a research study found that early retired workers had much better physical and mental health than those still working. In this context, the company focused their attention on how to improve health and well-being of older workers.

Company initiatives

SSAB Tunnplåt’s initiatives addressed three main areas:

  • Improvements of work environment and individual health check-ups : Workplace lighting was improved, sight examinations were provided and employees were given spectacles for specialised work. Conference rooms were equipped with hearing loops for the hearing impaired and ergonomically unsuitable working places were rebuilt. Special devices for packaging steel coils and sheets, and for driving overhead cranes were introduced. These measures were combined with rotation at different work stations to avoid overstraining individual workers’ muscles, joints and ligaments. Initiatives aimed at improving the general health of employees included individual health check-ups and rehabilitation.
  • Age dependent ability for shift work : Attention was paid to understanding the different attitudes towards shift work between older and younger employees. Older workers often prefer few night shifts in succession, while younger workers generally have no difficulty with working night shifts. Thus, it is important to create an understanding between the age groups by making the younger workers understand the biological differences between young and old, and by informing them about the medical problems that they could face in the future.
  • Union initiatives : The unions and the workers introduced several working teams aimed at constructing a good shift schedule taking into consideration older workers. The schedule was ultimately decided through a democratic process, including a trial run of each proposed schedule, an employee questionnaire, and an employee vote.

Outcome

In addition to the ergonomic optimisation of the workplace, the individual health service, and good shift schedules, the option for older employees, at least from the age of 58, to reduce working hours was recognised as an important measure to keep these employees at work up to regular retirement age. Employers were rather reluctant to reorganise work to allow half-time work but, over time, state regulations grew more flexible and the attitude of the company has softened. As a result, many older employees were able to work up to the regular retirement age.

Siemens AS: Career mobility and ageing employees

Company background

Siemens AS is one of Norway’s leading electro-mechanical company and employs about 3,000 people at 26 sites throughout the country. About one third of the employees are engineers or engineering scientists, and 84% of the workforce is male. Siemens AS was established in Norway in 1898 and is a subsidiary company of the German concern, Siemens AG.

Towards the end of the 1980s the company became concerned about the ageing of its workforce. There was hardly any internal mobility. Some parts of the firm were in a steady market situation and employees tended to stagnate. The company wanted more mobility and development of employees, particularly among managerial staff. As a result, the company implemented a new career system in 1987. In order to advance, professionals did not need to take administrative responsibility. Siemens introduced the system of ‘Constructive Management Mobility’.

Company initiatives

The two main programmes initiated by Siemens AS were:

  • Constructive Management Mobility : The department of Management Development and Training initiated and implemented several actions, including the development of a training programme for ‘Constructive Management Mobility’. This programme was established following advice from organisational psychologists and employee input. Mainly leaders in the 55-64 age group enrolled in the programme. It consists of three two-day meetings over a period of eight months, with a mixture of plenary sessions, group work and individual work. Between the first and second meeting, a four-hour dialogue with an organisational psychologist takes place, focusing on individual interests, options and resources. Between the second and third meeting there is an exchange with the personnel director on alternative job opportunities in the company. Each programme has 12 to 15 participants who belong to one of four small groups, so called coaching groups, throughout the process. The members of each group are recruited from different divisions of the company.
  • TIPTOP - Senior Resource : In 1993 a similar programme for non-managerial staff was introduced: ‘TIPTOP - Senior Resource’. It consists of two seminars lasting two days each, and three seminars lasting one day each. There are about three weeks between each seminar and the whole programme takes four months. Non-managerial staff with more than 10 years of experience are invited. Each programme has 12 to 15 participants and focuses on practical challenges at work and the working situation. Its aim is to improve competence and to give encouragement. This programme is not intended to increase mobility.
  • Active Reorientation Process : In 1996, a programme for all employees, irrespective of age, was started. This is a one and a half-day seminar for all employees, and is part of the effort to create a learning organisation and to develop readiness for change.

Outcome

One year after completing the Constructive Management Mobility programme, two thirds of the participants experienced a major change in their job, i.e. they had new tasks or changed job. In some cases they moved to another division of the company. About 10% found a new job outside the company and only 3% took early retirement.

Participants report they have taken more responsibility for their own development, have increased their competence, and have become more open to change. The company considers participants to have improved their ability to work in teams, which they see as important for meeting future challenges.

The Constructive Management Mobility programme has attracted interest from other companies and a few external participants were accepted for the 1998 programme. Plans to establish this programme as a separate business for external participants are under discussion.

Uppsala University Hospital: Retention of ageing employees

Company background

The hospital in Uppsala is both a university hospital and the county hospital for Uppsala County. It is split into 10 divisions and 16 clinics. In 1995, approximately 8,000 employees worked at the hospital including around 800 physicians, 5,600 other healthcare professionals and 1,600 other employees.

The average age of the employees is high. In 1995 it was 41.3 years and will be 55 in 2010. This age composition has created problems. Older physicians and healthcare professionals do not have the same levels of tolerance for working long shifts, late nights or early mornings, and being on-call. By focusing on the integration of ageing employees, the Uppsala University Hospital aims to increase preparedness for future changes in management, organisation and work routines. At the same time, the hospital wants to contribute to a good working environment and the development of employees who are 45 years of age or older.

Company initiatives

Drawn from an employee questionnaire and employee interviews, seven areas for improvement were identified:

  1. Training and education: Mentoring was suggested in order to make good use of the knowledge among older individuals, by pairing younger staff with a mentor for an extended period of time. Educational development also provides a break and prevents burnout.
  2. Working environment: The increase in pace of work, stressful working environment, general situation of uncertainty and increased individual competition lead to more conflicts, both within each individual professional group and between various groups of professionals. There is not enough time for communication, which is necessary for employee cooperation.
  3. Work and work hours: Older staff found it difficult to relax after late evening shifts and had difficulties sleeping. The work schedule plays an important role since it is impossible to get enough rest between the shifts. Consequently, many older staff expressed the wish for shorter work hours and an earlier retirement age.
  4. Teaching organisation: Staff training and education on a continuous basis are beneficial for the survival and development of the entire organisation. This is accomplished by each manager making a 10-year plan for education and training, by setting out individual educational plans for all of his/her staff based on the needs of the organisation, and by providing time for education and training development in the work schedule.
  5. Flexible work hours and retirement age : Flexibility is desired with respect to work hours and retirement age in order to enable optimum utilisation of individual capacities. This could be achieved through a trial period with a six-hour workday and flexible retirement age.
  6. Healthcare: Investments in healthy living included time for health and exercise in the regular work schedule as well as the offer of various health and exercise alternatives, and the provision of individual support.
  7. Workplace groups: Workplace groups can create an environment where employees learn to handle conflicts and change, and how to participate in implementing changes. First these groups function with the aid of facilitators, after which they become ‘self-operating’ and develop into voluntary interest groups, e.g. scheduling groups, physical space groups, organisation groups, work environment groups, etc.

Outcome

In two years, the mean age of employees at the University Hospital has increased by three years to 44.3 in 1997 and the following aspects were successfully implemented.

  • Continued education: Workplace groups have been formed in order to work on an education programme for staff aged 45 and over. The programme includes personal input opportunities as well as opportunities for communication between various professional groups.
  • Education in care sciences: Care seminars, twice per semester, have begun. There is a tentative plan with the Care Institute to begin five or 10-point courses in care science methodology.
  • Leadership: Discussions have begun regarding the principles and forms of a long-term change in management culture, attitudes towards management, organisational structure and hierarchies. It is hoped that this will create a path towards change among management, that maintains knowledge and satisfies the demands for continuity and renewal.

Realkredit Danmark: Recruitment of employees over 50

Company background

Realkredit Danmark is one of Denmark’s largest finance institutions with 1,200 employees, having an average age of 40 years in 1995. The firm’s market share is 27% and it services about 60,000 customers. In 1995, Realkredit Danmark received a prize for their high level of customer service and the quality of their products.

In recent years, the sector faces an increasingly older workforce. Traditional solutions applied to solve this problem were based on early retirement and letting go older employees.

Regulatory changes and low interest rates led to an increased demand in permanent staff. Furthermore, the task nature of the firm changed, requiring more direct customer service. Previously, only 30% of the customers contacted the bank directly, but with the new financial system about 56% of the customers were in direct contact. Thus, it became important to have a broader age distribution of the staff, as the middle-aged and elderly customers usually preferred to talk with advisors of a similar age profile.

Company initiatives

Realkredit Danmark recruited employees aged 50 and over in order to:

  • avail of the high level of unemployment within this age group;
  • fill the need for more employees in direct customer service;
  • increase the age distribution within the firm;
  • take on those who would retire ‘naturally’ within a limited time period;
  • match the age profile of the customers;
  • facilitate more direct contact with customers;
  • draw on their previous experience and training;
  • gain local knowledge;
  • achieve greater stability in the workplace;
  • benefit from the employees’ ability to adapt quickly to the job.

After discussing the problem with senior members in the firm, the idea of recruiting workers aged 50 and over was suggested by the managing director. The managing director and the personnel manager planned the recruitment programme and introduced it to Realkredit.

The recruitment programme for employees aged 50 and over included:

  • advertising in national newspapers;
  • limited demands, special customer service and advice;
  • fixed salary;
  • recruitment procedure;
  • induction period;
  • education and training.

Outcome

About 1,400 applicants responded. The gender distribution was fifty-fifty and one third were not working. A total of 58 persons were recruited. The age distribution ranged from 48 to 59 years of age. After a short period of training they were allocated to 24 local offices throughout Denmark.

In the beginning, other employees’ attitudes and reactions were moderate to negative, but after an introduction period attitudes became more positive. The permanent staff saw their new colleagues as very competent and with high ability to solve problems in new tasks.

Primarily the idea was to achieve greater flexibility within the firm. Realkredit Danmark believes that the recruitment of older employees has been a success for both the younger and older employees. Very few of the 58 senior recruits have left the firm and most are well integrated.

An ageing workforce

EMCC has published further case examples of companies addressing the challenge of managing an ageing workforce. Three companies from Austria, France and Germany, representing partly the same and partly different sectors (steel, electronics, financial services), and the Finnish Ministry of Labour presented their approach and policies at the Company Network Seminar in Vienna on 4-5 March 2004.

The Foundation has undertaken a number of projects in the area of ageing and work, looking at strategies to combat age barriers. The report Age and working conditions in the European Union covers issues such as the physical demands of work, shift and night work, intensification of work, new technologies, development of skills and task rotation.

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