Older workers still struggling with work/life balance

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By Candice Harris, Barbara Myers & Jarrod Haar* of The Conversation

The idea that we can comfortably manage all facets of life – work, family and other responsibilities – is appealing. But in reality, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to work-life balance – especially for older workers.

Making up a third of the New Zealand workforce, older workers (aged 55 and older) are a growing cohort in the economy.

There is the temptation to treat everyone in this age bracket as the same. But new research from the Auckland University of Technology and Massey University, shows this is a mistake. In fact, the support older workers want in order to achieve better work-life balance can differ as they age.

Indeed, the lives of older workers can vary greatly when it comes to employment, family structure, financial resources, time and wellbeing.

Anxiety, depression and older workers

The goal of the research carried out by Professors Candice Harris and Jarrod Haar, along with Associate Professor Barbara Myers, was to better understand the effects of work-life balance on anxiety and depression caused by job stress among older workers.

This is important as older people are often invisible in conversations about mental health. However, having older workers who are mentally strong, healthy and productive is increasingly essential for businesses.

Older workers themselves should also seek to understand what drives and diminishes their own work-life balance. It is an important predictor of wellbeing – especially as workers 55 and over could be an “older” worker for decades to come.

Work-life balance at different ages

Overall, the research found age – and proximity to the traditional retirement age – are important factors in how workers respond to work-life balance. Workers in the 55-59 age group still have a relatively long career ahead. For them, balancing work and life is especially beneficial.

The average levels of work-life balance among the older workers studied were high, comparing well with similar studies looking at other age groups. Those reporting high levels of work-life balance said they were able to comfortably manage their work, family and other responsibilities.

Job stress (when the demands of work exceed the resources of the employee), job anxiety (when the job is mentally stimulating but not enjoyable), and job depression (when there is little mental stimulation or enjoyment), can all affect wellbeing at work.

However, the 55–59-year-olds reported higher levels of job stress than older respondents. These younger older workers reported juggling stress that was fuelled by high job demands. Workers in this group were also managing the needs of younger families, often including children in their teenage years.

But respondents reported they experienced less stress in their jobs when their work-life balance was high. They subsequently had lower levels of anxiety and depression.

The younger cohort (55–59 years) reported the strongest benefits of having work-life balance. This effect reduced but remained significant as employees aged.

Respondents who were 65 and older reported a reduction in job stress, and at levels significantly higher than the younger cohort with greater work-life balance.

The analysis also showed the ‘retirement’ group (those aged 65 and older) had the highest work-life balance, perhaps highlighting the strength of being ‘retired’ (and receiving government income) while also being in paid employment.

At low levels of work-life balance, there was a significant difference in levels of job stress. Those in the younger age group (55–59 years) reported higher levels of job stress than respondents in the older age group.

When compared with respondents with high work-life balance, these differences were reversed, with respondents in the younger age group (55–59 years) reporting significantly lower job stress than the older age group.

Employers need to think differently

Managers need to understand that older workers are not a uniform group. It is important to develop age-relevant approaches to support the work-life balance of older employees.

Employers also need to consider how to allocate resources to support employee work-life balance across their lifespan.

Candice Harris is Professor of Management at the Auckland University of Technology. Barbara Myers is Associate Professor at Auckland University of Technology’s Department of Management. Jarrod Haar is Dean’s Chair in Management and Māori Business at Massey University.

This story was originally published by The Conversation

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