Working longer is more than just a question of postponing the retirement age. Employers could gain a lot by investing in the continued productivity of their staff, is the opinion of Johan Groothoff, professor of Labour and Health at the University of Groningen and the University Medical Center Groningen.
‘Ageing is unavoidable for everyone who works, but does not occur at the same pace in every individual. Some older people are still very fit, but most develop one or more limitations which both they and their employer should take into account. Generally speaking, people's endurance gradually diminishes once they pass forty. The question is how to organize your productivity in the best and cleverest possible way.’
Groothoff has observed that more and more of the responsibility for continued productivity is being placed on the shoulders of the employee. ‘We call this empowerment, making people aware of the importance of their personal responsibility for their health.’ The real question then is whether everyone in society is able to cope with that responsibility. Some of the population are unable to adapt to the preferred attitude, and that causes Groothoff concern. ‘Many people, often not very highly educated, have never developed the capacity to steer their lives in such a conscious way. Should you then so emphatically leave everything to such vulnerable groups?’
Groothoff thinks that employers should more emphatically use instruments such as annual appraisal reviews to keep an eye on things. ‘What is going well and what do we need to adapt? In some sectors you’ll have to look harder than in others, but the point is the joint interests of employer and employee in continued productivity.’
What is crucial is not the form, but the contact. ‘A good boss will find the time to really listen to his or her staff. Work is not only something you have to do, it’s also something you must talk about.’ It is evident that this is not always easy, because how can you then compensate for that? ‘Nobody likes being demoted or a cut in salary. But really being productive includes looking ahead and, for example, preventing absenteeism.’
Every sector in the labour market needs a tailored solution, states Groothoff. Every profession makes different demands of its employees, but heavy work is difficult to define. ‘The trades unions have a classic definition, with strong emphasis on heavy physical work such as that done by road layers and builders. However, someone who has to take a lot of decisions in a short period of time, or regularly has to deal with strong emotions, is also under a lot of strain. The point is whether you can juggle your work and how you react to the discovery that a task is beginning to become difficult to perform.’
Groothoff thinks that there’s a lot of ground to be gained in many professions. ‘In construction work, for example, not everyone is up scaffolding. Wouldn’t such a company benefit from someone in the administration department who knows what it’s like to be a builder? We often see that people over 50 are no longer sent on courses, but is it right no longer to invest in them? How do you deal with the experience in your company?’
Johan Groothoff is professor of Labour and Health at the University of Groningen and the University Medical Center Groningen. He is a specialist in the field of business medicine and insurance medicine. In 1986, Groothoff was awarded a PhD by the University for a thesis on indicators for incapacity for work, death and health.
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