Is the productive wellbeing of older workers all in the mind?

Meditation techniques can lift the health and fulfilment of mature-age employees

As people are staying healthy and living longer, many older workers, aged 55 and over, have been choosing to continue in employment well into their sixties, seventies and even into their eighties. 

Since 2000, the number of men and particularly women remaining in work has been climbing steadily, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Despite this, evidence suggests that businesses aren’t good at supporting their older workers and could be doing a lot more to prevent premature exit from the workforce.

According to Deloitte, this is a missed opportunity. Its Global Human Capital Trends survey, which underlines the benefits to the economy of retaining the knowledge and skills of older workers, describes them as a “proven, committed and diverse set of workers”.

So, what can be done to boost the health and life satisfaction of mature-age employees?

Tammy Allen, a professor in the psychology department at the University of South Florida, and visiting scholar in UNSW Business School’s business of diversity program, has a suggestion. Her research has been focusing on the practice of mindfulness and meditation at work – specifically as it impacts on older people’s sense of their own wellbeing.

“We know workplaces can be a source of pain and psychological stress at times. Meditation and mindfulness have the potential to reduce stress and help to self-regulate emotions,” says Allen.

'When we talk of diversity, it’s often around sex and race with age diversity largely ignored'


Competing demands

The rapid pace of modern work and the multiple and competing demands made upon employees makes for a stressful cocktail that can affect workers at all levels and all ages. Anxiety, lack of sleep and an inability to focus are some of the main symptoms that can be helped by practising calming techniques such as mindfulness meditation.

It’s why the study of mindfulness has grown in importance among organisational academics and also why companies such as Apple, Google and Nike now all promote meditation among their staff – with some even employing a mindfulness officer to lead training.

Allen’s previous research has focused on work and family balance and the role mindfulness can play in creating equilibrium between the two. 

“People face competing demands being in a work domain but thinking about family and vice versa, and we explored whether mindfulness intervention could be a tool to help people manage that interface.”

Results suggested that it could. It led to a shift in research focus to the impact of mindfulness on an ageing workforce and how it might influence their subjective wellbeing.

Allen and her co-researchers analysed data based on a group of around 2500 in-work people with a median age of 51, evenly spread between men and women. Questions were posed about their physical and psychological health, life satisfaction and whether they already practised mindfulness and if so, to what extent.

Allen says they found that those people who practised mindfulness meditation reported improved vitality and better physical health. And the more frequently they did it, the more positive was the link between age and life satisfaction and psychological health.

This supports a growing body of research from leading institutions, such as Harvard in 2018, pointing to the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on those suffering depression, chronic pain and anxiety.

'[Mindfulness can help] older workers who are having to navigate their way in dealing with younger workers and taking on new roles'


Clear some space

“Mindfulness is really a way of exercising the brain and training people how to be in the moment rather than letting their mind ruminate about the past or the future. Too often people wind up going from A to B without realising how they got there,” says Allen.

The ubiquity of new technology particularly mobile technology creates distraction and makes that ability to be in the moment with people more difficult, she says.

Allen isn’t suggesting that everyone should be in the present 100% of the time but more “that you have an intention towards what it is that you are doing”.

Another important component to mindfulness is being non-judgmental says Allen.

“It is about being more compassionate with yourself and, if you get aggravated with a co-worker, recognising that feeling, labelling it and moving on from it,” says Allen.

Ideally, businesses will provide a quiet space where employees can practise mindfulness but for small and medium-size companies that’s not always possible. Allen says this isn’t strictly necessary and that people can find ways other than meditation to regulate their emotions and prepare throughout the day.

“It may be that each time a person washes their hands they choose that moment to touch base with themselves and come back to the present. Or walking into a room, people might give themselves cues to reconnect and make sure they clear some space and bring themselves back into the present moment.”

Equal opportunity tool

Large global corporations have looked at the science and have been won over. Steve Jobs at Apple was an early adopter, introducing 30-minute meditation breaks for staff. And when Salesforce opened its San Francisco office in 2016, meditation rooms were included on every floor. For businesses such as these, mindfulness meditation isn’t just another employee perk, it’s something that impacts on their bottom line.

Clearly, if older workers can stay in a better physical and mental health, they can function effectively in the workplace for longer, which is good on lots of levels. One of these is helping to make workplaces more diverse.

When we talk of diversity, it’s often around sex and race with age diversity largely ignored. But mindfulness can have relationship benefits, says Allen, “by helping older workers who are having to navigate their way in dealing with younger workers and taking on new roles”.

While Allen focused on the benefits to mature age workers, she says mindfulness is “an equal opportunity tool that appears to have benefits for a wide variety of individuals, helping reduce psychological strain, self-regulating emotions and simply making work a more enjoyable place to be”.


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