Close up of young nurse holding old man's hands and encourage him.
(Credit: Visoot Uthairam / Getty Images)

Hiring older and more experienced workers could be a big help in alleviating workforce challenges, particularly in long-term care, according to a new article published in the Harvard Business Review.

“In these workers, employers often gain not only employees with loyalty and reliability, but also sound judgment in addressing critical customer needs,” authors Bob Kramer, Ed Frauenheim, Paul Irving and Jacquelyn Kung, DrPH, MBA, wrote.

The findings are based on a study that includes both interviews and survey data of 35,000 older, experienced employees in the United States. A key to recruiting and retaining such workers is moving from transactional relationships with employees to relationships of empathy and understanding, according to the research. 

The authors identified seven principles that employers can follow to recruit and retain older workers:

  1. Tackle ageism.
  2. Build community and camaraderie.
  3. Communicate clearly and candidly.
  4. Adapt and accommodate physical challenges.
  5. Pay for the job, not for tenure.
  6. Arrange and enable flexible schedules.
  7. Design respectful and purposeful roles.

Businesses must be willing to accommodate the needs of older workers, they said. Participating older adults in the study said they are looking for flexible scheduling to accommodate family, health and travel needs. Such accommodations, they said, can demonstrate caring leadership from an employer. The workers want to be seen as people first, and not just as employees, the researchers noted. 

“Accommodations include more frequent breaks; more chairs to sit in to enter notes; shorter, three-to-four hour shifts; and having two people tag-team to fill one full-time employee role,” Kung, CEO of Activated Insights, the senior care affiliate of Great Place to Work, told McKnight’s.

According to the authors, employers also should rethink how they measure productivity. 

“For instance, one manager we interviewed described how older food servers move more slowly than younger ones. But the older workers are more efficient,” they wrote, adding that older workers have learned “tricks” to offset their physical challenges. 

Seventy-six percent of survey respondents who said they would recommend their employer to others indicated that their work gives them purpose beyond being “just a job.” The recent study results are in line with a previous study from 2014 that estimated that almost 60% of adults aged 50 or more years are looking for roles with social purpose.

Compensation, surprisingly, was not a top consideration related to the retention and recruitment of older employees. Rather, the authors noted, the “key to attracting and retaining seasoned workers is to focus on the value of their work — not necessarily their years in the workforce. …Moreover, even when an older worker is worth a higher pay rate, it may be possible to offer part-time hours to contain total compensation.” 

US birth rates are declining and there is “little prospect for major immigration reform” soon, noted Kramer, founder of Nexus Insights and co-founder and strategic adviser to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care.

Workers in their 50s through 80s, he said, “are the single largest underutilized workforce in the US and our industry can and should lead the way in engaging this desperately needed resource.”