Heidelberg scientist investigates preconditions for longer working lives
Health, qualifications and motivation are the crucial factors determining whether, as a consequence of demographic change, wage-earners can or should go on working past the age of 67. To tap the potential of older staff members to the full, employers need to create favourable parameters and preconditions.
However, personnel and health management measures and improvements in workplace design should not be postponed until employees are heading for retirement, they should be implemented throughout their working lives. These are the findings produced by a study undertaken by Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Sonntag, industrial and organisational psychologist at Heidelberg University.
The study was commissioned by Arbeitgeberverband Gesamtmetall – Federation of German Employers’ Associations in the Metal and Electrical Engineering Industries – and targeted at the age group between 55 and 70. Prof. Sonntag evaluated some 150 studies and research reports on the work efficiency of older employees.
The investigation was prompted by demographic developments: life expectancy is rising but in future there will be significantly fewer workers available for companies and enterprises. At the same time, the trend in the working world is away from physically demanding manual work and towards jobs requiring cognitive and social skills.
Prof. Sonntag emphasises that retirement from the world of work is not bound up with any “naturally predetermined” limit. “In addition,” he says, “it is by no means inevitable for work efficiency and effectiveness to deteriorate as a result of advanced age.” The course taken by our physical and cognitive abilities differs widely from one person to the next, says the psychologist.
Notably in the cognitive sphere, changes should not always be equated with deterioration. Though it is true that high work intensity, time pressure and low autonomy do have a detrimental effect on the work quality achieved by older employees, this is not the whole story. “In concrete terms,” says Prof. Sonntag, “older workers only come off worse when information has to be processed quickly. But this is offset by demonstrable assets like experience and expertise, where older employees come up trumps.”
According to Prof. Sonntag, three factors play a crucial role in the exploitation of this potential: health, qualifications and motivation. Employees themselves need to assume a degree of responsibility in connection with these factors if they want to derive success and satisfaction from their work in the later stages of their careers.
But the Heidelberg work-psychologist also strongly recommends companies and enterprises to institute measures of a supportive nature. “One important thing is preventive health management regularly and systematically analysing stressors and resources,” says Prof. Sonntag. “Job design is another decisive factor. In this area ergonomics, organisation and job content are equally important.”
In connection with qualifications, the psychology professor underlines the necessity of systematic and appropriate personnel development, allowing for self-determined learning periods and individual learning speeds and linking this with existing knowledge. In terms of motivation, Prof. Sonntag stresses the importance of unprejudiced superiors who are encouraging and appreciative to the people working for them.
While some of these measures have already been commonly established, the companies, the employees themselves and also the employers’ associations and unions need to devote more attention to these topics.
Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Sonntag
Institute of Psychology
Department of industrial and organizational psychology
Phone: +49 6221 547320
Communications and Marketing
Phone +49 6221 54-2311
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