As the nursing workforce matures, with age comes the possibility of more injuries, disabilities, and need for work accommodations. A recent article in the Journal of Nursing Administration explores accommodating an aging workforce, reports on the disabilities commonly seen in this population, and suggests universal design options.
Workers aged 55 to 64 increased 64% between 1998 and 2008, and in 2012, approximately 20% of the workforce was at least 55 years old. These statistics are also reflected in the nursing workforce, where 16% of RNs were aged 50 to 54 in 2008. Older individuals, defined as those over 40, are susceptible to more workplace injuries, especially affecting the neck, back, and feet, and may be less able to perform strenuous physical tasks than younger individuals. Because of the nature of the job, nurses have been found to experience a high incidence of back injuries.
Older workers are at risk for reduced vision, decreased strength, less flexibility, and lower bone mass, all of which can result in greater susceptibility to injury. On a positive note, many older workers are reported to be more motivated and experience lower levels of depression and occupational stress than younger workers.
The work environment can be adapted to decrease injuries to nurses, and especially aging nurses. When work becomes more difficult to perform, nurses are more likely to consider leaving the profession. To promote the retention of older, more experienced nurses in the workforce, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recommends several initiatives including workplace redesign, flexible work options, and improved ergonomics. Emotional health issues among the nursing workforce also require attention.
While accommodations are usually provided to workers who request it, the individualized approach overlooks the potential to improve conditions for all workers. By applying the principles of universal design, you can create an environment that makes work more accessible not only for those with disabilities, but also for the able-bodied. In addition, because disabilities are not always permanent, by using principles of universal design, injured employees can return to work sooner and stay on longer.
Many accommodations benefit all nurses, whether or not a disability is identified. Examples include shorter work days or nights, inviting break rooms, scheduled rest or stretch breaks, and stress management techniques as aspects that can benefit not only older nurses in particular, but all nurses.
What universal design elements are in place at your workplace?