Study: The older you are, the more stress you may feel at work

PORTLAND, Ore. — Feeling stressed out at work may become more frequent in middle-age or our senior years, research shows.

Workplace practices that can negatively affect job satisfaction among employees young and old were found to be even more detrimental on the stress levels of older workers, according to the Portland State University study.

“These are things that employers should provide to all employees, but may be especially important for older employees,” says study co-author Donald Truxillo, a psychology professor at the university, in a release. “You don’t want to have a company policy that says, ‘We treat young people this way and old people that way,’ but it does show you that age-sensitive human resource systems should be in place where you maybe train managers on how to be aware of the needs of their different workers.”

The research team conducted surveys with 243 public works employees over the course of a year. Participants were between the ages of 24 and 64.

The study found that all employees feel less stress when they feel trusted and respected in a workplace that is flexible and offers plenty of resources and support. While all employees suffer when these elements are missing, the study found that stress levels skyrocket for older workers.

Study authors say their findings suggest that for older workers, having more freedom to choose how they do their work and feeling supported by their employers helps them deal with the psychological and physical changes of aging. While younger workers are more focused on learning skills and advancing careers, older workers are more interested in emotional needs. Older employees find more value at work through meaningful interactions with their colleagues and in mentoring roles with younger coworkers.

Overall, both younger and older workers have lower stress levels when they have more autonomy as well as good relationships with supervisors. Feeling that they are respected and treated fairly is important to all workers. But not having such support impacts older workers disproportionately. When these elements were lacking on the job, older participants in the study reported much higher stress levels a year later than their younger coworkers.

The authors say their findings provide important information to employers, who face an aging workforce. According to the U.S. Labor Bureau, older workers (ages 55 and up) will make up about one-fourth of the workforce by 2020.

“With the workforce becoming more age-diverse and older at the same time, it is important to understand the differences between younger and older workers to help them cope with the demands of their work lives more effectively,” says co-author Lale Yaldiz, a university researcher in industrial-organizational psychology.

Study authors offer some common-sense advice to employers. They suggest that organizations provide workers with plenty of leeway in how to complete tasks. This flexibility allows older workers to bring their unique skill sets, strengths and years of experience to the job.

The authors also say supervisors need to be trained in ways that will encourage workers of all ages to feel trusted and valued as part of the team.

Another way organizations can relieve stress is by being transparent about decisions and by incorporating employees in those decisions whenever possible. This is especially important to older workers, researchers say.

“When you come down to it, focusing on bottom lines and ignoring these human resource factors have really bad results and can be more expensive down the road,” adds co-author Todd Bodner, a psychology professor with the university. “By not focusing on the human side, it’s a short-term gain but a long-term loss.”

The study is part of a larger project aimed at improving employee health, safety, well-being and work-life balance.

The researchers say that future studies need to look at diversity and its impact on different worker groups across industries, jobs, genders and ethnicities. Now that they have more clues about older workers, researchers say the next step should involve finding out which resources matter most to younger employees.

Findings were published in the August 2018 edition of the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

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