Occupational Health Care Management: The Benefits to Workers and Companies

Steinbeis Transfer Institute develops concept for older employees

In 2009, the German federal office of statistics predicted that the number of people of a working age in Germany would fall by around 35% from 49.7 million in 2010 to 32.6 million in 2060. This trend can hardly be avoided, even with a much higher number of people entering the country and an extension of the average number of working years. Even today, some sectors of industry are noticing a deficit in new workers. Demographic change in Germany will result in a rise in the average age of workers. So it can only be in the interest of companies for older employees to stay on at work for as long as possible and remain healthy. Given all of these issues, the experts at the Villingen Institute of Public Health (VIPH), a Steinbeis Transfer Institute belonging to Steinbeis University Berlin, have developed a concept under the leadership of Dr. med. Lotte Habermann-Horstmeier: aBGM (which translates literally as “age-appropriate occupational health care management.”)

For companies that want to support their increasingly aging workforce and keep them fit to work in the future, it’s not enough to simply offer their employees one-off occupational health activities. It is doubtful whether they will be either effective or efficient because, by themselves, initiatives have little discernible impact. Instead, it is important to see occupational health care management (OHM) as a holistic activity. OHM goes far beyond conventional activities of health promotion within companies. It involves establishing an overall health promotion framework at the company or institution, which has to be combined with meaningful preventative and health promotion measures at the individual level.

Given the fact that society is getting older, effective OHM should now always be about providing “age-appropriate” OHM. This was the thinking behind a concept called “age-appropriate occupational health care management” (aOHM) which was developed by the Villingen Institute of Public Health (VIPH), a Steinbeis Transfer Institute. The idea was based on strategies and instruments used by the German Network For Workplace Health Promotion (BKK. Maintain Employability. Strategies and Instruments for a Long and Health Working Life. BKK Federal Association, 2007). Central to the success of an aOHM within companies are the inclusion of company management and workers, a positive and cooperative leadership style, and a company culture based on mutual appreciation.

One of the first steps when planning an aOHM is to record the changing age profile of the company by conducting an “age structure analysis.” Based on this, a checklist can be drafted to capture key areas of action. This provides a snapshot of the current work and employment setup within the company, taking the current and future age profile into account. This analysis should also include the results of a “work ability index.” This shows how people see their own ability to work (now and in the future). To create an understanding for key issues, a workshop can be offered to workers to look at age and health topics.

Based on this approach, aOHM can be customized to the individual company and it can have an impact on many areas of the business. To successfully introduce concrete measures, it is essential to coordinate development plans and this should be underpinned by an integrated, holistic strategy for the whole business. Actions in different areas have to be carefully dovetailed:

  • If workstations and working environments are to be designed ergonomically, they should be continually adjusted to changes in people’s physical ability to perform certain tasks. This helps prevent improper physical workloads.
  • It is also beneficial to older people if work and procedures can be made more adaptable. This can involve changes in tasks and workloads which offers people greater variety and makes it easier for them to learn new things. In such contexts, it can be advantageous to have team members of different ages. Improving work organization includes measures aimed at reducing time pressures.
  • It is increasingly important to offer older workers activities that allow them to define their own working hours in keeping with concepts of work-life balance –something that is also well received by younger employees. It may be worth considering moving away from shift work since older shift workers are much more likely to fall ill. If possible, the planning of shift rosters should revolve around health promotion.
  • Depending on the operational requirements, it may be possible to introduce company health programs and offer checkups and preventative medical examinations. Other possible measures include setting up communal sports activities, canteens with health foods and instruction on “anti-stress strategies.” Health care programs generally have a long-term impact, but only if the necessary prerequisites are fulfilled within the business.
  • It is often misunderstood how effective continuing professional development can be as part of aOHM. Companies with a policy of offering training to all employees, simultaneously, independent of the age group, often expand the understanding of everyone involved. This helps protect older workers from excessive workloads since they can be reallocated to alternative areas of the business.
  • Effective aOHM also includes step-by-step reintegration when an employee returns to work after a long period of absence for health reasons. As people get older, the number of sufferers of chronic illness increases so it becomes all the more important to introduce options to successfully return to work.

Small and medium-sized enterprises often believe that comprehensive OHM programs are prohibitively expensive for companies of their size. As a result, when the experts at the Steinbeis Transfer Institute in Villingen were designing their aOHM program, a key consideration was that the concept could be adaptable to any size of business. Whether occupational health care management is ultimately effective and financially viable for a company can be checked and assessed in an “outcome evaluation.” Unfortunately, most companies reject this option for cost reasons, but even in this area there are ways for SMEs to limit outlays.

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