Australia’s workforce is ageing, creating an interesting set of challenges for managers and business owners interested in maintaining a safe and productive work environment.

A quarter of Australia’s population is over 55. By 2028, we can expect a third of Australians to be in this age bracket. As well as getting older, our lifespans are extending incrementally.

This fact raises the expectation that much of the population will remain in paid employment, perhaps well into their seventies, in order to sustain their lifestyle and to afford retirement.

The practicalities of designing workplaces suitable for an ageing workforce in many ways are similar to designing a safe and ergonomic environment. By recognising the needs of your employees, and providing work structures and equipment that support individuals in their roles, you are investing in the quality of work people are enabled to return.

The reality of many workplaces is that they will have a broad mix of ages working under the one roof. In order to set everyone at ease, employers can plan age-neutral workplaces.

As the human body gets older, clarity of eyesight and hearing can often deteriorate and all employees need good lighting to see their work and soft acoustics to concentrate. Good acoustics and lighting subconsciously influence a positive experience within the workplace. Their presence helps people to do their work. However, if the lighting and noise levels are incompatible with our bodies it will cause a distraction at minimum – or even distress. Instead of assuming that if the lights are on, everything is okay, ask an ergonomic assessor to determine if lux levels and decibels measure at levels adequate for the normal range for all adult age groups.

Outfitting a workplace with sound absorbing materials works wonders. Compare your experience of sitting in a carpeted office with cushioned chairs and foam tiled ceilings to sitting in a cafe with polished concrete floors, wooden chairs and exposed roofing. In the former you can concentrate for long periods, in the latter, it can be hard to hear the conversation over the clatter and din.

When you realise that it takes the average person around 23 minutes to regain concentration, the investment in acoustics has strong business value. Even the air-conditioning system has a role to play. The background hum of airflow masks low level noises and conversations happening on the other side of the office that would prove overtly noisy and distracting in a silent environment.  

To help people with less than perfect sight, whether they are older workers or not, there are additional items to consider than the level of light. Important signs for way-finding and warning notices can be written in accessible format. Think about asking employees stationed at computers if they would like to trial screen magnification software or voice recognition software to assist with reading and writing tasks. These solutions can increase efficiency, increase safety and lift employee satisfaction rates.

For physically demanding work, it pays to be aware of your employees strength, flexibility and reaction times. Generally speaking, we are less agile when over 55 than in our thirties, however, do keep in mind that individuals age at different rates and active people in their seventies can have better performing bodies than young people.

By doing an individual workplace assessment, you can determine what duties are safe to perform for each individual. Some simple fixes may include:

  • swapping older workers out of repetitive tasks at frequent intervals so they do not strain their muscles and get an injury, or
  • assessing if the equipment is adequate for the job, or are there more effective tools.

A good safety manager will be able to think through they way the work is performed to find safer, productive outcomes that improve safety results that suit older works, and benefit the wider team.

To succeed in the long term, Australian businesses will need to understand how to plan for our changing population demographics. Many of the recommended measures to plan for an ageing workforce can actually benefit the majority, not just a select few. By looking after older workers, your are giving your company access to the wisdom, know-how and life experience that only decades can bring.