Study examines factors that influence people’s ability to keep working as they age

Gwen_FisherIt’s not work load, flexible schedules or even having an unsupportive supervisor that most influences whether many Americans feel they can continue working in their current jobs.

It’s their physical health and personal sense of control, according to a study on “work ability” by researchers at Colorado State University, Wayne State University, University of Connecticut and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The results recently were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“What we found in all age ranges of workers is that these personal factors played a big role in their perceived ability to continue working,” said Gwen Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at CSU.

The survey

Fisher, an author on the study, and her colleagues surveyed more than 2,800 American workers in three separate samples, asking them to rate seven personal- and 12 job-related factors on how much each influenced them.  Factors included control over work schedules, supportive supervisors and co-workers, physical job demands, emotional stability, health status and lack of chronic illness.

Physical health and sense of control ranked highest for two of the samples and among the highest for the third set of worker, who worked in manufacturing. Those who worked in manufacturing also listed environmental conditions, such as vibrations from tools, and the need to maintain physically demanding body positions, such as kneeling or stooping, as big factors.

That physical health and sense of control, both personal factors, were high on the list for all three sets of workers surveyed surprised researchers.

“We thought work factors would have more of an influence on all of these groups,” Fisher said.

Work ability

The research study, which included data from the national Health and Retirement Study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, is among the first to examine the concept of “work ability” among American workers. It has been much more studied in Europe and South America.

“Work ability is not about whether people want to continue working, but whether they feel they can continue working at their jobs,” said Alyssa McGonagle, a professor of psychology at Wayne State University and the lead author on the study.

Both Fisher and McGonagle say the study results add to existing evidence supporting the need for workers to maintain their health – especially since the average retirement age is rising as is the age at when Americans can collect full Social Security benefits.

“Work ability is an important concept to study given that many Americans are working longer than ever before,” Fisher said.