Blog post

Five tips to ensure the sustainable employability of your employees

Emma Govers
Emma Govers 23 February 2015

Our population is aging and that also applies to the working population. In many organizations the average age has gone up and, due to the higher retirement age, employees will have to continue to work to a higher age than before. These developments call for policies aimed at improving both the ability and the willingness to continue to work longer. Unfortunately, not all employers are equally happy about the fact that employees have to continue to work longer. There are quite a few prejudices in this regard, the more common of which I think are: “older employees are inflexible and have rusted up” and “older employees come up with fewer innovative ideas and no longer wish to develop themselves”. It's good to see that many organizations have come up with various different ways to keep their older employees mobile. This is defined by expressions such as ‘sustainable employability’, ‘employability’ and ‘age management policy’. In this blog, I will give five tips to start achieving this.

1. Offer fewer standard schemes and more custom-made solutions

I believe that a sustainable employability policy should address the needs of all employees. It should not be just confined to measures focusing on older employees (specific seniors policy), but it should also include measures aimed at younger employees; measures that contribute now to their employability at a later age. Such an integrated HR policy aims to keep employees healthy, motivated and capable throughout their working lives, regardless of their age or the lifecycle stage they are in.

This policy should also pay attention to individual employees' personal situations and needs, since the group of older employees is a heterogeneous group: people of a higher age may greatly differ from each other. Custom-made arrangements have a better effect than standard or ‘one-size-fits-all’ schemes. They will also better match the needs of older employees, ensuring that they will be employable for a longer time.

I personally conducted a study in the FMCG sector, where people work in shifts. I found that there was a need among older employees for a more flexible and custom-made schedule. Some employees preferred to work fewer morning shifts, whereas others wanted fewer night shifts.

A first step towards bespoke solutions is mapping the capacities, limitations, needs and desires of employees and, for example, recording them in a registration system. As a next step, you could consider aspects such as mobility, flexibility, employability and the possibility of colleagues swapping shifts.

2. Remove any reluctance to discuss sustainable employability 

The Raet 2014-2015 HR Benchmark shows that only 28% of all respondent organizations give priority to sustainable employability. However, an aging working population calls for permanent attention from employers and employees to sustainable employability. The importance of sustainable employability must be recognized internally and there must be more openness to discuss such matters as growing older and the associated problems and needs. Good ways to achieve this are by discussing things together, talking about the future, and providing more education and information. You should also make sure that the subject is addressed as part of a properly planned performance review cycle. In this way, concrete agreements can be made together about such aspects as ambitions, development and other needs, dealing with physical complaints, and any other matters necessary to be able to continue to work until one's retirement.

3. Improve your employees' health and vitality

The increasing average age in the workplace will result in age-related health complaints occurring more often while people are still working. Some older employees may experience symptoms that are typically associated with a higher age, such as tiring more quickly, problems with their musculoskeletal system, with their memory, or with processing complex information. Actually, good physical and mental health is the main precondition for sustainable employability, i.e. being able to continue to work longer. Proper education and information and offering a healthy work environment can also promote your employees' health and vitality. You can achieve this through ideas such as the use of adjustable desks, chairs and monitors, more computerization, lifting aids, the right lighting, providing healthier food in the company restaurant and encouraging the use of sports facilities. 

4. Stimulate lifelong learning

The Raet 2014-2015 HR Benchmark shows that 30% of HR managers and 28% of board members of respondent companies consider a lack of willingness to develop to be an obstacle to talent management. They also indicated that knowledge is becoming outdated ever-more quickly. If you want older employees to remain interested in developing themselves and in keeping their knowledge up to date, I recommend stimulating lifelong learning. For example, you could offer sufficient education and development opportunities that would enable employees to develop themselves throughout their working careers. Ensuring that employees keep learning promotes that they are, and continue to be, stimulated mentally, prevents their mental capacities deteriorating, and stimulates their willingness and ability to keep developing - even at a higher age. 

It is a misconception that older employees are not capable of developing further. It is true that older employees require another way of learning than younger employees. Adjust the learning methods to the employees' needs and also consider their education backgrounds and private situations. My study in the FMCG sector revealed that older employees prefer short courses and extra practice of the subjects taught rather than long-term training courses. A more concrete, practical and ‘on-the-job’ approach to learning also better matches their learning needs. Internal traineeship opportunities, peer assist groups and periodic development interviews can contribute to this. By talking to older employees, asking about their individual development needs, and taking the necessary action, you can keep your older employees employable for a longer time. 

5. Offer alternative activities 

There are different reasons why older employees may no longer be able do their jobs. If this happens in your organization, then find alternative activities that match the employee's work abilities. Help older employees to find other jobs internally, e.g. by means of a mobility center or mobility pool, by setting up a database of odd jobs that need doing, or by creating mentor functions. A mobility center is a good way of getting an insight into any slots that become vacant and into which employees are looking for alternative functions. The goal is to structurally or temporarily match employees from the pool with internal vacancies. Besides internal mobility, you could organize mobility centers with other parties from inside or outside the sector in which the company is active. 

If no or hardly any alternative functions are available, a database of temporary jobs may be useful. You can set up an intranet page or use an online tool to match supply and demand for other various short and long-term jobs or projects. Employees can then react to these jobs and/or make themselves available based on their ambitions and competencies, even if no jobs or projects are currently available. The Raet 2014-2015 HR Benchmark describes how the Dutch municipality of Hollands Kroon has achieved this through its 'HK-Plein'. The advantage of this is that overdue work can finally be completed and that employees are introduced to other work and to other parts of the organization. This enables them to utilize other skills and qualities and it keeps them productive. 

And finally, older employees might work as mentors, pairing up with new colleagues to whom they can transfer their knowledge and experience. The advantages of this are that older employees tend to like this, knowledge is not lost, and employees learn from each other.

An integrated approach is necessary for an organization to be effective concerning sustainable employability. I hope that my blog has inspired you and given you the right framework to get started on this. Good luck!


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Emma Govers

Trainee HR Consultant

+31 6 55 88 67 98

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