Wednesday, November 30, 2022

by Tom Snee

Businesses are more often turning to older workers to fill employment gaps and a new University of Iowa study finds countries that spend more on health care help keep those older workers healthy.

Yiduo Shao, assistant professor of management & entrepreneurship at the Tippie College of Business, says countries with higher per capita health care spending don’t see a significant difference in sick days taken by younger and older workers. That means older workers in countries like Norway and Switzerland, which have higher health care spending, are less likely to take sick days as they age than workers in countries like Albania or Macedonia, which don’t spend nearly as much.

yiduo shao
Yiduo Shao

“Age does not make as much difference in countries that spend more on health care because workers are less likely to experience health deterioration that leads to sick leave when they grow older,” says Shao, the lead author.

The researchers analyzed worker engagement and personal health using two databases taken from surveys of more than 28,000 workers in European Union countries and the United States. They then compared that data to health care spending and labor force participation rates in those countries to see where an employee’s age is the biggest impact on people’s decision to call in sick.

They discovered older workers tended to be more engaged with their work and found it more meaningful, so they were more energized and less likely to call in sick to start with. This is especially so in countries with higher labor force participation rates, where people might value working as a more important part of their lives, but less so among older workers in countries with lower labor force participation rates, such as Italy and Montenegro.

Unsurprisingly, they found that older people had fewer physical health issues in countries with more health care spending. But the analysis also found that in countries with higher health care spending, older workers were less likely to take sick days as they age. For instance, the study found that workers in Albania—which had the lowest per capita health care spending—are estimated to take 4.6% more sick days than they did ten years earlier. But in Switzerland, which has the highest per capita health care spending in the survey, workers were estimated to take roughly the same number of sick days as they did ten years earlier.

She said the results of the study are another reason why it’s important for businesses to encourage its employees to engage in healthy habits that keep them energized. Given the need of many businesses to retain older workers, Shao said businesses can increase vacation time, provide exemptions from overtime for older workers, and arrange flexible work arrangements that increase older workers’ ability to perform. Intergenerational work arrangements may also help to energize workers of all ages.

Researchers suggest policymakers consider public health campaigns to increase personal health care literacy and the availability of health care resources.

Shao’s study, “Age and sickness absence: Testing physical health issues and work engagement as countervailing mechanisms in a cross-national context,” was published by Personnel Psychology. It was coauthored by Bernadeta Gostautaite of ISM University of Management and Economics in Lithuania, Mo Wang of the University of Florida, and Thomas W.H. Ng of the University of Hong Kong.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-541-8434 (o); 319-541-8434 (c);