TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR COLLEAGUE IN THE NEXT OFFICE. He’s a man in his fifties who still wears a suit long after the office went “business casual,” works well past five o’clock and, and if you’re not mistaken, has a selfassured, calm demeanour that reflects 30 years of experience. Does he look stressed? Not from where you are sitting. Is he stressed? Very likely.

A revealing new study from WarrenShepell finds that older workers (those 50 years and older)are a stressed out lot. They’re also more stressed than those under age 50. According to the study, “The Aging Workforce: An EAP’s Perspective,” which tracked the stress levels of the two age groups in Canada over a period of three years, 11.2% of older workers reported high levels of stress, while 10.6% of the respondents under 50 were stressed out. In general, stress levels were rising.

“The level of high stress is trending upwards in both cases but when it comes to the older worker, it’s trending upwards much more quickly than the younger group,” says Gerry Smith, vice-president, organizational health at WarrenShepell in Toronto.

“We think that some of the reasons why we’re finding older workers are reporting more work-related stress is the fact they probably have more on their plates than the younger worker.”

Smith feels such factors as insufficient financial planning, paying for childrens’ educations, health problems and the impact of years of corporate downsizing may be taking their toll.

Older workers are also coping with more loss, likely on account of the deaths of older family members, finds the study. An average 4.4% of older workers reported experiencing grief between 2001 and 2004 versus 2.4% of younger workers. Worst of all: they’re neglecting to turn to employee assistance programs(EAPs)for help.

Out of the different age groups compared in the study, the over 50-year-olds are least likely see an EAP counselor, accounting for 9.5% of all EAP accesses over the three-year period. In comparison, for the same period, 40.8% of 30- to 39-year-olds turned to EAPs for assistance.

The frightening part, Smith acknowledges, is there are many stressed workers who don’t even call EAPs for help—a fact that could be worrisome in the future.

The workforce in Canada is aging rapidly. According to Statistics Canada, 35.7% of Canada’s working-age population is between 45 and 64 years of age. StatsCan predicts that figure will increase to 38.8% by the end of 2006.

That means the Canadian work environment will be top heavy. And this trend could be more pronounced in light of the abandonment of early retirement policies and the need to keep older employees in the workplace.

So, what can employers do to ensure their stressed-out older staffers don’t leave? Barbara Jaworski, FGI’s director of worklife and well-being in Toronto, feels a lack of challenging work contributes to older workers’ stress levels, and suggests employers develop mentoring programs that create rewarding environments in which older workers share their expertise. “It’s a real win—it’s a more interesting role for the more experienced workers and it’s a win for the organization and for the newer employees.”

Smith adds that developing flexible work schedules can help older employees looking after elderly parents. Offering financial planning as a benefit can also help reduce stress brought on by financial problems.

Failure to take action now could severely impact the numbers of older workers who will stay in the workplace. “If [employers] don’t act, they’re going to be left with an unhealthy workforce becoming more despondent and that will lead to greater costs in terms of health, and impact their bottom line,” says Smith.

Anna Sharratt is associate editor of BENEFITS CANADA.