Boomers with and without chronic conditions have similar needs for workplace supports

IWH study of older workers finds those in good health similar to those with arthritis or diabetes in using—and benefiting from—programs such as flex-time and telework

Published: February 12, 2019

Thanks to longer life expectancy and the elimination of mandatory retirement policies, Canadians are now working into traditional retirement years in greater numbers than before. This shift to later retirement can benefit working individuals financially; it can also help alleviate employer concerns about skills shortages and loss of institutional memory.

But an older workforce does present other challenges related to health and accommodation issues. Research to date has shown that age-related chronic health conditions such as diabetes and arthritis can create problems for workplaces in the form of increased absenteeism and lost productivity.

To understand some of those challenges, a study led by Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Senior Scientist Dr. Monique Gignac focused on the need for, and use of, workplace supports and accommodation practices, as well as differences in work outcomes when such supports are available.

We know from research that people with arthritis or diabetes often struggle at work and are more likely to have to give up their jobs, says Gignac, author of an open-access, peer-reviewed article on this research, published in the April 2018 issue of Work, Aging and Retirement (doi: 10.1093/workar/way004). In this study, we aimed to find out whether the accommodation needs of baby boomers with chronic conditions are being met through the use of common policies and practices that many organizations already have in place and, if so, whether that makes a difference to work outcomes.

The study found that, despite their poorer health, respondents with chronic conditions were similar to healthy peers in reporting little or only occasional need for workplace supports. The study also found that the supports they needed were typically the ones already available at many workplaces for all to use: think flex time, work-at-home arrangements, extended health benefits, among others.

This study reminds us to stop focusing exclusively on the disease or health condition and, instead, look at what supports are already available or can be provided at the workplace, says Gignac. Some supports, such as flex time, aren’t necessarily onerous for employers. But a lot of the time, when they are available, workers make use of them and find them helpful—and that’s the case whether people have young kids or chronic health conditions or some other needs.

Nine workplace supports examined

To conduct this study, the team sent out 13,500 email invitations across Canada to working people born between 1945 and 1964. Of the 7,965 people who responded, a final sample of 1,566 respondents were eligible and agreed to participate. About 40 per cent had arthritis, 18 per cent had diabetes, seven per cent had both conditions and 34 per cent had neither. People were excluded from the study if they worked less than 15 hours a week, reported having other chronic health conditions prior to their arthritis or diabetes diagnosis, or were recovering from a surgery or an injury.

In this cross-sectional study (i.e. a snapshot in time), study participants were asked about the availability of a range of accommodation or supportive practices or policies in their workplaces. The top nine supports reported were flexible hours, special equipment/adaptations (e.g. built-up keyboards), modified job duties, altered work schedules, compressed work weeks, more breaks and rest periods, work-at-home arrangements, extended health benefit plans, short-term leave, and wellness programs.

Beyond asking people whether these supports were available at their workplace, the survey also asked participants which ones they needed as well as which ones they used. Based on the answers, the research team determined whether respondents’ support needs were met (supports were needed, available and used), unmet (supports needed, but not available) or exceeded (supports available and used beyond what was needed). 

The team found about 70 per cent of participants—whether with arthritis, diabetes or no chronic conditions—said they had access to three or more accommodations at their workplace. The most widely available accommodations were flex time, special equipment and extended health benefits. Least available were work-at-home arrangements. About two-thirds of respondents—across all health conditions—said they used two or fewer accommodations in the previous 12 months. Also encouragingly, 60 per cent of respondents across all conditions said their accommodation needs were met, and another 16 per cent said their accommodation needs were exceeded.

Work outcomes studied

The study also examined what factors were associated with available supports meeting, not meeting or exceeding respondents’ needs. It also looked at differences in work outcomes across the three groups. 

In terms of associated health and work factors, respondents whose needs were unmet reported significantly more pain, fatigue and health variability than those whose needs were met. They were also more likely to work part-time and had less physically demanding work, greater job stress and less job control. On the other hand, compared to those whose needs were met, respondents whose needs were exceeded reported significantly less fatigue and health variability. They also had physically less demanding work and more job control.

In terms of work outcomes, the researchers were surprised to find respondents with needs met and those with needs unmet experienced similar levels of job disruption, productivity loss and absenteeism. In contrast, the ones with needs exceeded had  fewer workplace activity limitations, fewer job disruptions and less productivity losses.

Referring to the lack of difference in outcomes between those with met and unmet needs, Gignac points to previous research indicating that workers may avoid using accommodations until they have experienced declining job performance or health crises. 

When people say their needs were met, they had probably waited and delayed a fair bit of time before they did something about the problem, perhaps even delaying until there was a crisis—something workers with these episodic chronic conditions do too often, Gignac says. In contrast, people whose needs were exceeded had likely been more proactive in using supports to address their needs soon after these needs arose.

A takeaway message for workplaces is to encourage a supportive climate at all times, Gignac adds. More proactive discussions about needs may have the potential to improve workplace planning, help workers avoid crises and sustain high levels of productivity, she says. Although more research is needed, this study is a promising first step in supporting employers who have made efforts to improve the health and well-being of workers through a range of policies and practices.