EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten, Germany: Flexible working practices


Case study name: 
Ageing workforce
Organisation Size: 
Metal and machinery
Target Groups: 
Persons with health problems
Initiative Types: 
Flexible working practices


Organisational background


Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten GmbH is a non-profit organisation, consisting of a therapy institute and workshops (werkstätten) that cater for several hundred people with disabilities. The workshops primarily carry out work for local enterprises but a few of their own products, such as an emergency rescue sheet, are also made and promoted in the workshops. Activities at the workshops vary and include metalworking, gardening, textile processing, electrical installation, stock-keeping and a painting company, thus offering employees a wide range of possibilities.

About 620 people are employed at Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten and some 130 people work in administration (65% men, 35% women). An increasingly critical issue for the organisation is the ageing of its workforce. While only 18 employees were aged over 50 years in 1993, this figure has risen to over 100 employees today. It is expected that the number of people in this age group will increase to approximately 300 by 2013. At present, more than 36% of people are aged over 45 years.

The objective of the work at Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten is to offer people with disabilities support measures through the medium of work, to promote their integration into the mainstream labour market. Therapeutic and other measures also ensure holistic personal development of the employees. A further focus is providing on-the-job training. In this regard, a number of courses are offered through an in-house training workshop. The workshop is mainly funded by payments from customers, as well as through benefits from the rehabilitation institute and the labour office.

The workshop council, which is represented in all bodies of the ‘friendly society’, is responsible for the interests of the employees. The employees have co-determination rights, particularly in relation to issues concerning workplace equipment and job changes.

The original initiative

The issue of its ageing workforce is something that Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten has been addressing for some time. In 1993, the organisation conducted an age profile analysis for the first time. It revealed that the company would face a significant ageing process in the ensuing years. In 2005, over 100 people in the organisation were over 50 years of age; this figure is expected to increase to over 300 people by 2013.

The problem of the ageing workforce is compounded by the fact that some people with disabilities age faster than those without disabilities. For instance, people with down syndrome age earlier and faster, and already exhibit life changes at 40 years of age that people without disabilities only show at around 60 years of age.

Against this background, Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten developed a concept that had two key aims. First, it wanted to enable employees to continue working until the age of 65 years, even though people with disabilities qualify for a full disability support pension after a 20-year qualification period. As many of the jobholders do not have any family members who can sufficiently care for them, the only place they could go to would be a nursing home for old people. It is, therefore, regarded as important that the employees keep up their work, as it gives them a daily routine. Second, the organisation aimed at preparing employees for retirement, when they would no longer have the structure of gainful employment. The organisation wanted employees to acquire competencies regarding their own life-planning, and to identify how they could make the most of their retirement. It was decided that the planned measure should encourage a stronger amalgamation of work and leisure time, both to provide stress relief and also to prepare the employees for retirement.

In 1994, a ‘seniors’ group’ was established for the first time and an ABM job was created for the accompanying care tasks. ABM (Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahmen) refers to job creating measures whereby projects that are in the public interest and that accomplish additional work are sponsored by the job centre. Leisure activities were also offered, usually three days a week, for employees over 50 years of age within the scope of the seniors’ group. The employees could sign up for these activities, which included creative activities, music, or excursions to the surrounding area or town, and thus combine elements of work and leisure. This initiative was welcomed by all the employees.

Development of the initiative

In time, the organisation began to realise that a break of only a few hours from their work was not enough for the employees. Moreover, the employees expressed a wish to take part in the leisure activities in a fixed group. To comply with these needs, a fixed seniors’ group was founded in 1999. Work and leisure activities in the group are organised in such a way that the group members work together for half the workday (working time in the workshops usually amounts to 36 hours a week) and use the second half of the day for shared leisure activities. A group room for eight to 10 employees has been specifically set up for both work and certain leisure activities. The leisure programme covers a whole range of activities, including excursions, creative activities, shopping, baking and cooking. While the other benefits (rehabilitation, social security contributions) remain constant, the members of the seniors’ group are paid a reduced amount of about €60 per month.

Members of the seniors’ group are also in daily contact with the other work groups to ensure that they are properly integrated. The members collect work assignments, which mostly consist of assembly work or other simple tasks, from the respective work groups and also return them there after completion.

A new position was created at Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten with responsibility for care of the seniors’ group. At present, the job is held by an educator/carer for elderly people. The care-giving competencies are necessary for a range of caring tasks, e.g. assisting people to go to the bathroom. In addition to the seniors’ group, employees aged over 50 years are allowed to take part in the distributed activities of the workshops; this option is open to employees who still prefer to remain in their work groups but who gladly accept the additional offer of taking time out from work. The distributed activities are primarily organised by additional staff such as interns and zivildienstleistende (young men doing community service as an alternative to military service).

At present, over 100 employees in the organisation are aged over 50 years; as a result, there is a waiting list for the seniors’ group, which has a maximum intake of only 10 staff members. Employees who are found to be particularly in need of a reduction in their workload, and who would fare better in the seniors’ group than in the work groups, are admitted to the seniors’ group. The workshop council – the representative body for the employees with disabilities – was involved in the plans concerning the formation of the seniors’ group and supported the measure. However, no formal agreement was concluded regarding the group.

Good practice today

Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten maintains a number of measures that support the occupational and personal development of its employees. Their health, for example, is enhanced by means of physiotherapy and relaxation exercises. Measures aimed at specific target groups are also maintained. One example is the ‘supported communication’ project, which provides support to people with disabilities who are not able to communicate verbally by means of various instruments. A further focus is the provision of vocational training. Every new employee must first take part in a two-year training programme, where skills, competencies and interests are assessed and specifically promoted, so that the employees can take up a suitable job in the enterprise.

Promoting the holistic personal development as well as the integration of the employees is also important. The organisation endeavours to enhance these areas through a broad range of leisure activities (e.g. sports, music, creative activities, excursions, holiday trips).

An important target group of Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten is its older employees. Since the 1990s, the organisation has put measures in place to ensure that employees aged over 50 years are offered a mixture of work and leisure activities. In 1999, the organisation set up a fixed seniors’ group. Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten emphasises that cost effectiveness is not the main objective of this measure. One key aim is to secure the employability of the staff members until the age of 65 years, by reducing the workload: this is particularly important as work constitutes a beneficial structuring and integrating factor in the lives of people with disabilities. At the same time, the measure aims to prepare the employees for retirement from the age of 50 onwards, by introducing other time use structures and placing a stronger focus on recreational activities. So far, the measure has been very well received by the employees.

As the ageing of the workforce is expected to intensify in the future, further concepts are already under way at Gelsenkirchener Werkstätten. These initiatives relate to staffing, spatial conditions, and the adaptation of activities.

Further information

Contact: Michael Volmar-Rehberg, Public relations, accompanying services, vocational training, email:

Company website:


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