Older employees reluctant to ask for support: study

Impression management is 'really important to people, that they had built a reputation'

Older employees reluctant to ask for support: study

When it comes to sharing information, the common wisdom is that younger people will post everything they do on social media and tell everybody about how they are feeling.

But for the more mature generation — those aged 50 and older — a new study reveals that this group is much more hesitant to ask for help at work.

The study, “Workplace Disclosure Decisions of Older Workers Wanting to Remain Employed,” was conducted by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) and it showed that when it comes to asking for support on the job, either due to health or family-related reasons, there is a deep hesitation present in the older cohort.

“What we found with this study that did surprise us was how fragile people felt their reputations were as older workers,” says Monique Gignac, scientific director and senior scientist at IWH in Ottawa and lead author of the study.

“Even though they had spent years working in the same place, they had this concern that because they were older, if they shared any kind of information about health or other aspects of their life that suggested they weren’t 100 per cent able to always be at work, that their reputation would disappear overnight.”

An employer organization in Quebec recently urged employers to look to the 60-plus generation in order to ease the labour shortage.

Should I share?

When asked about their feelings around requesting accommodations to deal with family situations, that was a big challenge for participants in deciding whether or not to share information, says Gignac.

“I think some of what affected that was the context [of]: ‘I want to look like a good worker,’ so impression management was really important to people, that they had built a reputation.”

Some people said if they had grown up with the technology and information that’s available today, they’d be just the same as this younger generation in sharing all the time, she says.

“Others felt that there were generational differences but more along the lines of recognizing that we do have a lot of negative attitudes still toward older workers, and that older workers may need to protect themselves more.”

Some older workers had mild admonishments and career advice for younger workers, says Gignac.

“There were certainly some people who felt that the current generation really needed to stop sharing so much information; that they didn’t realize the career implications that this might have for them, [and] they weren’t maybe appreciating the implications of what it means to post all those pictures of your Saturday night.”

‘Ageist attitude’

Negative stereotypes were also felt by this generation during the research, according to Gignac.

“Being called the grandpa in the workplace [or] ‘You’ve been here so long’ — sometimes there was a sense of ‘You’ve got great history, and you’ve got great experience,’ but a lot of time [there was] the sense that older people are lingering and staying too long.”

While many of these slights are “subtle,” they did contribute to a negative attitude towards older workers, she says.

“It was not that there was overt ‘Older workers aren’t good workers’; it was more the language in the comments which people, maybe were saying lightheartedly, but weren’t funny to the worker.”

When it comes to technology in the workplace, attitudes persist around senior employees being unwilling or unable to grasp new ideas — but it wasn’t always that simple, says Gignac.

“Older workers felt sometimes when they questioned change… it was because people didn’t understand the benefits of exactly why things had been done in a certain way.”

The cost of living is causing many older workers to delay retirement, found another survey.

Different ways for different groups

In order to shift this perception around technological change, organizations should “recognize people learn differently, and there is research on this, that older adults learn more with practice in chunks, where you can dump a bunch of information on younger adults. That’s not necessarily the best way for older adults to learn new skills,” says Gignac.

For HR, it’s important to realize that sometimes the oldest generation in the workforce doesn’t like to formally ask for help.

“Maybe this is generational wanting the more informal, ‘Let me negotiate with my supervisor,’ as opposed to ‘Let me go down the hall and talk to HR and this is part of a record.’ There seem to be a different process that older workers were looking for and so recognizing maybe that within organizations as well, that that’s the way some workers like to approach a problem is helpful,” she says.


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