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Healthy Work in an Ageing Europe

The EU Public Health Programme (2004–2005)
Coordinator – Oberösterreichische Gebietskrankenkasse, Austria

Due to the demographic change the proportion of elderly employees in European companies will increase significantly in coming years. During the next few decades the member states of the EU will be moving into an era in which their workforces will be the oldest in history. The large generation of baby boomers reaching retirement age is not the only challenge. Only a small proportion of the population will be of working age in future. According to reliable forecasts these two factors will affect the structure of the EU workforce by 2030. As a result, the competitiveness of the European Union during the next few decades will depend on the contribution of older workers, especially in comparison with North America and Asia.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the pension system reforms and other actions in the EU member states are planned to encourage a longer working life. In a number of countries however, working life has not been extended as wished. New and more effective means are needed which take into account that the health condition of individuals is of major importance for their participation in the labour force. And moreover, the effect work has on a person’s health has proved to be one of the determining factors which influence a worker’s decision as to whether or not to continue working until retirement age. The production system is also seen to prefer working with a younger age structure than the current age pyramid. But if elements of work, which are targeted mainly at young people remain the same or increase while the proportion of young people falls, simple arithmetic suggests this distribution between younger and older workers cannot be sustained. The general aim, therefore, is to extend workability and health up to a higher age. The most important force for change is the workplace. Workplaces will ultimately affect how the age challenge is received and how successfully practices will be changed. Together the employer and the worker should form a team that can change age practices and methods of operation. Both will have to take responsibility for health issues. It is possible to extend working life through improved individual health and lifestyles as well as through a healthier work organisation and environment.

Workplace health promotion therefore should not be regarded merely as an additional measure or appendix; it has to take a central position in company policies and strategies. The 5th ENWHP initiative has dealt with these facto and the results were presented at the 5th European Conference in Linz (Austria). An important message was conveyed to the European community of stakeholders interested in workplace health promotion. This message invites them to support a change of company attitudes to the ageing of their workforce. In many companies, the ingrained prejudice that an ageing workforce brings disadvantages still exists. Although physical abilities diminish with age, older workers possess a wide range of skills and abilities that are all key to today’s economy. Many skills and abilities, and especially communication, organisational and social skills, only mature in the latter half of life. Others, particularly mental ability, rarely diminish with age. The message also addresses the case for investing in workplace health promotion. It is encouraging and stimulating as well to see that companies, public administrations, hospitals and schools are investing in good workplace health practices.

They are keen to get involved for three major reasons: they believe in the values of working and living in a healthy way, they accept the need to respond to the challenges resulting from demographic change in all European countries and they are convinced that these engagements are investments which contribute to their core targets, whether they refer to economic performance, efficient health care, a high level of education or a high standard of services to the public.

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