Addressing the Physical, Psychological and Psychosocial Needs of Older Workers
When an employee becomes injured on the job, it is essential to consider the needs of the whole person — physical, psychological and psychosocial — in order to facilitate a successful return to work. Although much of the emphasis in a workers’ compensation case is placed on the physical body, issues ranging from depression and fear of reinjury to a lack of support systems cannot be overlooked.
With an older employee, psychological and psychosocial issues may be more imperative. Fears surrounding losing one’s job (even if unfounded) and feeling a loss of control in one’s life can become real impediments that keep older workers from returning to work and successfully staying on the job.
“There are specific issues when older workers are out on workers’ compensation,” says Thomas Emerick, president of Emerick Consulting LLC of Fayetteville, Ark. “Older workers in this situation have special concerns such as fear of being able to return to work, combined with worries over seeing their careers suddenly being limited.”
For case managers handling workers’ compensation cases, being attuned to the red flags and warning signals can ensure that psychological and psychosocial issues are addressed along with clinical and rehabilitative aspects of care.
The Aging of the Workforce
Demographic changes in the workforce heighten the need for case managers to understand this important segment of the population and the labor pool. According to U.S. government statistics, there are some 77 million baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) in the United States, representing about 37 percent of the total population aged 16 and older.
While much attention has focused on the expected waves of retirees from the baby boomer generation, social and economic trends — including the impact of a stock market crash on retirement savings and a desire to stay active longer — are keeping many older workers on the job. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of older workers has been increasing since the late 1990s, particularly among those aged 65 and older. This compares with labor force participation rates for this age group that had been at historic lows in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Looking ahead, workers aged 55 to 64 are expected to see a 36.5 percent jump in workforce participation. By 2016, workers aged 65 and older are expected to account for 6.1 percent of the total workforce, compared to 3.6 percent in 2006.
According to an April 2008 survey by AARP, one in five people between the ages of 55-64 and one in four between 45-54 planned to delay retirement due to the economic downturn. Declining home values, shrinking 401(k) balances and investment portfolios, and more people borrowing from their 401(k) plans were cited as factors contributing to the decision to keep working.
For employers, older workers bring many benefits, including experience, skills, knowledge and motivation. Employers often describe these employees as being loyal and having a good work ethic. Older workers can act as mentors to younger employees, and usually have high communication skills and decision-making abilities. All of these factors — coupled with a projected labor shortage in the future — showcase reasons to encourage older workers to remain productive.
But what about the health issues associated with older workers, particularly as they relate to workers’ compensation cases? According to industry data, older workers have fewer incidents of on-the-job injuries than younger employees. However, once injured, older workers typically take longer to recover and return to work than their younger colleagues.
Recovery times for older workers can also be impacted by health issues, including obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and smoking. Importantly, these risk factors are not exclusive to workers aged 55 and older, but are associated with the general population and contribute broadly to rising health care costs. Therefore, employers should promote health and wellness programs for all employees, including older workers. Health fairs and wellness programs at work, such as cholesterol checks and blood pressure screening, can also raise awareness and provide information on intervention and self-care.
Among the types of workers’ compensation injuries that affect older workers, soft-tissue injuries are among the most frequently reported. Contributing factors that lead to these types of injuries include visual and hearing impairment and loss of muscle dexterity and balance. When an older worker is injured, in a slip-and-fall incident at work, for example, the employer faces direct and indirect costs, including hiring a replacement worker, lost productivity or both. There are also medical and indemnity costs associated with a workers’ compensation case.
Containing those costs is an imperative for employers. Many companies have return-to-work programs to help employees who are recovering from a workplace illness or injury resume productivity as soon as possible. If the individual has medical restrictions, modified duties and transitional assignments can help the person resume working in a limited capacity.