Aging Germany must keep older workers healthy and happy | Business | Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 01.02.2011

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Aging Germany must keep older workers healthy and happy

Germany needs older workers more than ever to keep its industry humming and pension system financed. But there's one problem: employees aged 55 and older often miss work for longer periods of time due to illness.

Worker at Ford plant in Cologne

Older workers won't be a rarity on German assembly lines

People in Germany are living longer. But with a declining birth rate and a pension system under severe strain, Germany's government and industry also need people to work longer.

Problem is, many employees begin to suffer from chronic aches and pains in their mid-50s and, increasingly, from mental fatigue. As a result, they miss more days of work per year than their younger colleagues.

The days of allowing workers in Germany to retire as early as age 55 are long gone. According to the German Federation of Health Insurance Companies (BKK), the number of employees aged 55 and older increased 49 percent from 2000 to 2010, and continues to rise.

Fewer young peope, more older people

There are a number of reasons why. First, with fewer young people entering the workforce, companies now need to retain skilled workers longer. Second, with people in general living longer, the government needs the workforce to contribute longer to the pension system - the official retirement age already has been bumped up to 67, with some groups pushing for 70 . And, finally, many older people simply need to work well into their sixties and beyond to make ends meet.

New-born babies

Fewer babies are being born in Germany, creating problems for the government and industry

But as the age of retirement goes up, so, too, does the number of sick days in an older workforce. Every eighth male engineer over 55 years old, for instance, missed an average 18 days of work in 2009 due to illness - twice as often as the year before, according to BKK. Skilled personnel in finance and IT departments missed even more - 19.4 days, up four days over the previous year.

In 2009, employees aged 20 to 34 missed an average 10 days of work, compared to 26 days in the 55-plus age group, according to BKK.

Traditionally, blue-collar workers in the physically straining construction and heavy metal industries are more often ill or injured than their white-collar counterparts. Yet office workers, engineers and managers show rising levels of back problems, due less to overexertion than to lack of exercise. Even more concerning, experts say, is the rise of psychological problems, such as stress and burn-out.

"Speaking for my practice, I haven't noticed any unusual rise in illness per se among patients 55 and over, although many of them, of course, have some sort of chronic problem at that age," said Heinz Siemons, a general practitioner in Düsseldorf. "But what I have noticed is that many patients in this age bracket feel stressed and want to quit at 62 to enjoy life more."

Win-win situation

If companies need employees to work longer, they must do more to retain them and keep them productive on the job, according to Michael Stolpe from the Kiel Institute for World Economy. "Companies in Germany will need once again to invest more in the healthcare of their employees, as they used to do before competition forced some big changes in the labor market," he told Deutsche Welle. "Back then, employees stayed longer with companies - sometimes their entire career - and employers, in turn, took good care of them. It was a win-win situation."

Older workers

Still in demand: Older people in Germany will find many chances to work longer, if they want to do so

To compete for skilled people 55 and older in the years ahead, companies will need to offer them an appealing work environment, according to Stolpe. "These people will be more interested in a healthy workplace than in money, although compensation, of course, will still play a role."

Christiane Flüter-Hoffmann from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research agrees. In the war for talent, young and old, companies will need to become "more attractive" to employees and potential hires, she told Deutsche Welle.

Life-long training

"This begins with managers who can motivate and ease stress," Flüter-Hoffmann said, also pointing to the need for human resource development strategies tailored to an older workforce. "In many companies, training ends at age 45."

Corporate health management and continuing training programs are also high on the agenda. A number of blue chip German companies, including BASF, Daimler and EON as well as scores of midsize enterprises, have launched various initiatives.

BASF plant in Ludwigshafen

BASF in Ludwigshafen expects every tenth worker to be over 50 years old within a decade

"Generations@Work" is a BASF initiative focused largely on the changing demographics at its main production facility in Ludwigshafen where, in 10 years, the company expects every tenth worker to be over 50 years old. The program includes life-long training, human resource development, health management, ergonomics, work-life balance, flexible working hours and retirement funds.

German hospitals, too, may need to pursue new human resource strategies for recruiting and retaining personnel if they hope to master the growing number of elderly people requiring care in the coming years.

"It's tough work – around 30 percent of our staff are on sick leave," said Olaf Hagen, chief physician at the Bochum-based Augusta Hospital, which specializes in geriatric medicine. "It's not only hard to find nurses but also doctors. We're unable to fill four jobs right now. Many younger doctors aren't particularly interested in hospital work and many older colleagues want to retire. This is a problem for hospitals."

And that could be a huge problem someday for many older people in Germany as well.

Author: John Blau
Editor: Mark Hallam

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