How to stop your 'snow birds' flying

Jul 30 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The reason older workers are so often presumed to be coasting in their jobs is that managers allow them to do so. But it doesn't have to be like this, as new U.S research has highlighted.

Putting in place a culture of mentoring, continuing learning, flexible working and clear communication from the top can keep your so-called "snow bird" workers happy, engaged and productive into old age, and means that organisations will benefit from their experience and perspective for much longer.

A study healthcare policy research and management consulting firm The Lewin Group has concluded that with a bit of thought and planning, it is not that difficult to retain experienced workers and keep them engaged.

The research was specifically focused on nurses and healthcare workers but its findings are just as applicable to veteran workers in other industries or sectors.

What's more, such strategies could also be helpful in keeping workers of all ages, not just more mature ones, engaged.

The study identified six key ways of effectively retaining older and more mature workers:

  • a sustained commitment by senior managers and leaders to keep experienced staff on the job;
  • innovative approaches and thinking around staffing;
  • a focus on employee health and wellness programmes;
  • developing and cultivating a corporate culture that valued ageing;
  • compensation packages that catered more for older workers; and

  • flexible working arrangements

The other key thing for managers to recognise, the research concluded, was that no one single initiative by itself was successful at retaining experienced workers at all the institutions examined.

What tended to work better, therefore, was a set of initiatives that met employee needs at individual institutions.

By examining a number of hospitals and healthcare institutions around the U.S, the Wisdom at Work study found that putting in place flexible scheduling options could often make a difference.

It identified a hospital in Maine, for example, that had successfully put in place a policy whereby senior employees would allowed to work on a part-time or seasonal basis and swap shifts with fellow workers.

Other form of flexible working arrangements were also important to older workers. A hospital in Tucson, for example, had put in place a "snow bird" programme that allowed registered nurses to work for three, six or nine months at a time.

This was a particularly attractive option among experienced nurses (but again could be just as applicable to experienced workers in other professions) who only wanted to work for certain parts of the year.

The research also identified an effective mentoring programme running in Virginia that allowed experienced nurses to provide clinical and leadership mentoring to new nurses.

This in turn had contributed to a consistently low turnover rate among the more experienced nurses.

Then a continuing education opportunities in North Carolina, where experienced nurses were offered the opportunity to spend three days off site "re-envisioning" their practice at the hospital, had also been found to be an effective strategy.

Finally, at a hospital in San Diego, the researchers had applauded the creation of a "Leadership Cabinet".

This was where nurse leaders advised administrators on important decisions and acted as a conduit for employee concerns.

Other examples of best practice identified by the research included offering benefits such as phased retirement options as well as more general flexible working arrangements.

But the key, argued Susan B. Hassmiller, senior advisor for nursing at the Lewin Group, was simply recognising that retaining experienced workers made good business sense.

Once employers recognised that they would be saving on hiring and training costs by retaining their older workers, they were half-way there already.

There also needed to be a recognition that veteran workers could provide valuable experience-based insight, maintain institutional memory and be effective when it came to mentoring less experienced employees.

"At a time when organizations everywhere are looking hard at their bottom lines, the Wisdom at Work evaluations demonstrate the economic benefits of retaining experienced workers, which can improve productivity and workplace morale," said Hassmiller.

Older workers generally responded well if they felt valued and wanted, and the sorts of initiatives managers could put in place need not cost the earth, she added.

"We found examples of many cost effective measures that organizations can implement that will help create better working environments for employees of all ages and experience levels, whether they work in the health field or not," she said.