The High Cost of Retaining Older Workers

Retaining older workers longer comes at a cost most employers are unprepared to bear.  In addition to knowledge and experience, aging employees bring chronic diseases and its inherent short-term and long-term disabilities to the workplace.

The top five chronic causes of workplace short-term and long-term disability are arthritis, lower back disorders, depression, coronary heart disease, and pulmonary diseases. Each year in the U.S., these illnesses account for nearly 30% of all long-term disability claims, and their economic burden is estimated to be hundreds of billions of dollars in employee absences, diminished productivity, and increased health care costs.

These more widely recognized diseases influence productivity and disability but so do unrecognized and under-treated chronic conditions associated with aging, such as visual and mental impairment, incontinence, and physical immobility.

Still, most people under age 65 with chronic conditions are working. The percent of the 45- to 64-year-old population with these chronic conditions who are still in the workforce include 62% with hearing impairments, 61% with orthopedic impairments, 59% with hypertension, 53% with arthritis, and 51% with heart disease.


In the U.S., arthritis is the leading cause of lost workdays, and some 60% of persons older than age 65 years have at least some symptoms of the disease. Arthritis and other major musculoskeletal conditions represent 54% of all long-term disability and 24% of all restricted activity days in a Canadian study. Costs of more than $60 billion a year in lost productivity -more often from reduced job performance than absenteeism-are estimated for workers in the U.S. with back pain, arthritis, and other muscle and joint pain.


Depression is responsible for about 15% of the global disease burden and is an important cause of disability, impaired work performance, and reduced quality of life. It may be even more disabling in the workforce than common chronic physical disorders

Recent research found that the absenteeism rate in untreated patients was 70.2%, whereas the rate was 39.8% for those who were treated.


More than 58 million annual lost workdays in the U.S. alone come from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung disorders that impair breathing. Among individuals over 40 years of age, COPD ranks second only to coronary disease as a cause of disability. Smoking is one of the causes of COPD, and lung function gradually deteriorates if smoking is continued.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Because symptoms precede diagnosis by several years, early cognitive impairment leading to Alzheimer’s disease will affect some older workers. Further, since the prevalence of AD doubles every 5 years beyond age 65, the rapid growth of the oldest old population is expected to add significantly to the burden.

For more information about workforce trends and skilled worker shortages, visit Perfect Labor Storm.


Ira S Wolfe