Older workers not prone to ask for employer support, citing ageism and other issues

Key messages

  • In a study of workers aged 50 years or older, many workers did not want to retire, but were reluctant to disclose their needs for support in the workplace. 
  • The reluctance to ask for support often stemmed from concerns about ageism or other stereotypes toward older workers, as well as the risk of job loss or difficulties finding or retaining work. 
  • Organizations motivated to support older workers should offer flexible supports that people can access without having to divulge their needs. 

A study by IWH finds concerns about privacy, reputation, job loss among reasons older workers are not inclined to share they need support to keep working

Published: November 7, 2022

In light of the severe labour crunch seen across a broad range of sectors in Canada, it may come as welcome news to employers that many older workers are in no hurry to retire. That’s according to a new study of older workers conducted by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

However, the study also found retention challenges related to older workers’ reluctance to disclose their needs for support. The findings suggest that organizations motivated to support older workers to stay at work need to offer flexible supports that people can access without having to divulge their needs.

In the study, participants (all 50 years or older) spoke of wanting to protect their privacy, avoid gossip and guard their reputation. They were leery about ageist attitudes and stereotypes about older workers having health needs or lacking the ability to learn new skills.

Above all, they spoke about opening themselves to the risk of job loss and job insecurity. Many spoke of the difficulties older workers face when looking for work, the tendency of organizations to target higher earning older workers first when downsizing, and the decline of full-time, permanent jobs with good benefits in the labour market. These concerns added to their reluctance to share information about their support needs.

Our study found that people really did not want to go to their managers or HR to communicate their needs and formally seek an intervention or assistance, says Dr. Monique Gignac, IWH senior scientist and scientific director, and lead author of the paper published in September 2022 in Work, Aging and Retirement (doi:10.1093/workar/waac029).

That’s really going to create challenges for workplaces. They may not know what's going on with their older workers who, despite wanting to keep working, may lack the support to do so, adds Gignac, who also shared findings from her study at an IWH Speaker Series webinar in September 2022.

The takeaway for employers, she adds, is the importance of having practices and policies that are proactive in creating flexible and supportive environments that allow any worker to access support and still maintain privacy.

Watch a related webinar

She points to policies such as flexible working hours, wellness days and paid personal days as examples of popular policies that can help all workers, including older workers, to manage many personal needs.

Citing an earlier study, she notes that employers may want to encourage workers to be proactive in accessing workplace supports. That’s because those who avoid tapping into resources until they have to—and often in a crisis—report worse outcomes, such as more work disruptions and activity limitations, than those who are proactive.

The new study findings also point to the need to address ageist attitudes in the workplace, Gignac stresses. The negative stereotypes were most damaging when they came from senior leadership, but whatever their source, we didn’t hear of workers who felt they could challenge these perceptions. Instead, most participants chose to conceal their support needs and avoid drawing attention to themselves, she says. Many workplaces are now focusing their attention on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. Addressing ageist attitudes needs to be part of those efforts.

What the researchers heard

The study was based on ten focus groups conducted with 86 participants in the Greater Toronto Area in the months before COVID. Participants were people in their 50s or older who worked at least 20 hours a week. Just under half had a chronic health condition that resulted in some activity limitations. The jobs they held were a cross-section of full-time, part-time and contract work, in a range of job types and sectors.

The research team heard four themes emerge in their analysis of the focus group discussions. Below are some of the comments they heard, grouped along the following themes and topics:

Theme 1 – Perceived need for communication

The participants in the study recognized that sharing personal information was necessary to maintain good relationships and foster connections with others at work. However, they had mixed feelings about sharing certain types of information. Although they had fewer concerns about sharing their needs as caregivers to family members (unless these were prolonged), they were more reserved about sharing their need for training support or their intention to retire. They were mostly negative about sharing information about health needs, especially needs related to mental health.

Caregiving: When my husband took sick and he had to be away, they were really, really good with me. They accommodated me, no problem. (Female, 54 years, retail salesperson)

Training and skills development: I do feel that I have to compete with the younger [workers] in a sense of demonstrating that I’m as completely up to date in technology, and all the latest learning strategies. (Female, 63 years, teacher)

Retirement: It’s dead man walking. As soon as they know you’re out the door, well, why would I bother talking to you?... It’s like you’re invisible. I’ve seen it and it’s a shame, but it has happened. (Male, 56 years, environmental analyst)

Health: I think there’s much more stigma to mental health. You know, you’ve got a bad hip, you’ve got diabetes, or whatever, you know—poor thing. [But if] he’s depressed—can we count on him? I’m not so sure. If I would hide anything, I would hide mental health. (Male, 56 years, salesperson)

Theme 2 – Maintaining one’s reputation

Participants spoke of the importance of others’ impression of them. They talked of the considerable time and effort that went into cultivating their reputation as a productive and skilled worker over the course of their working lives. They saw their reputations as fragile and vulnerable to ageist stereotypes. Communicating support needs, especially health-related needs, could undermine their reputation and make them vulnerable to gossip or lost work opportunities.

Reputation: I’d be afraid to say anything, especially if the person that I would have to tell is a person that has hiring authority…I’m always thinking about the consequences of my actions. (Male, 56 years, tax auditor)

Theme 3 – Trust in others and perceived support

Participants spoke extensively about how trust in others and the extent of perceived support affect decisions to communicate. The discussions centred on the prevention of gossip, the protection of privacy, and preference for informal support over formal avenues.

Organizational culture: There’s still a considerable amount of stigma around accommodation or requesting that. Folks are very private or they’re afraid to come forward with that…There’s always this subtle whisper around the office around what’s going on there or there’s suspicion around it. (Male, 52 years, public sector employee)

Formal vs. informal support: You tell [HR] something, they’re going to have to note it down, it goes in the record, and all that. If you can keep it informal, that’s how I would want to go. (Male, 62 years, senior data analyst)

Trust: You can very easily identify the ones who are trustworthy… you get to know. You wouldn’t divulge things unless you had an established history, at least for a bit of time with someone, so that you could see if they could be discreet. (Female, 51 years, shipping/storage supervisor)

Attitudes of others toward older workers: Because you’re getting old and you’re one of those guys who was there when you used typewriters instead of computers. You get stigmatized. (Male, 56 years, environmental analyst)

Theme 4 – Perceptions of job insecurity

Participants spoke often of job insecurity and the risk of job loss. It was discussed not only by those in precarious work situations (for example, people in contract work), but also by those with stable, secure employment. Participants with greater job insecurity were less willing to disclose their needs, more concerned about their reputations, and less trustful of others at work.

Challenges in finding a new job: Trying to find employment…I had more success when I changed my resumé taking off the bottom half of all where I worked. (Male, 60 years, transportation logistics analyst)

Costs and benefits of older workers: I find it heartless, especially when you have a loyal employee who has worked there for two decades and they’re like, okay, out to pasture because you’re too expensive.” (Female, 54 years, financial services)

Labour market insecurity: There’s been a real focus on millennials being underemployed. But it’s not just millennials…It’s me who’s working under contract for three and a half years. I don’t feel like I have any sort of job protection. (Female, 54 years, financial services administrator)

This study was conducted by the same team that’s conducting a larger project exploring accommodation needs and communication decisions of workers who live with episodic disabilities. A key feature of that project, Accommodating and Communicating about Episodic Disabilities (ACED), is the development of tools to provide guidance to workers with episodic disabilities, as well as their employers, managers, supervisors, disability managers and human resources personnel. For more about that project, go to: https://aced.iwh.on.ca.