10/06/2020

Keeping our minds active and engaged via challenges and fresh experiences, we are keeping our brains in check.

When we talk about health and wellness these days, our conversations mostly revolve around the integratedness of physical and psychological health. However, often missing from these conversations is the discussion of an organ that is just as crucial - our brain. Strong scientific evidence has shown that declining brain health can have a profound impact on both physical and mental health, so much so that Dr. David Rock and Daniel J. Siegel have developed a guide to emphasise the importance of holistic health. Known as the ‘Healthy Mind Platter’1, the guide brings to attention 7 key interconnected elements that have a key role in providing optimal brain function:

stions on what we can do to promote brain health for our employees.

  1. Focus time: Having a goal-oriented focus on tasks can allow us to make deep connections through the uptake of challenges
  2. Physical time: Exercising through aerobic or physical activities can help to strengthen the brain
  3. Play time: Allowing ourselves to enjoy new experiences, be creative or spontaneous can promote new connections in the brain
  4. Connecting time: Taking the time to connect with other people and appreciate our connection to the natural world around us helps to activate and reinforce the brain’s relational circuitry
  5. Time in: Focusing on sensations, feelings, thoughts and reflections can help us better integrate our brains
  6. Down time: Being non-focused through the absence of specific goals can help our brains relax and recharge
  7. Sleep time: Resting the brain can let it consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day

By keeping our minds active and engaged via challenges and fresh experiences, we are inevitably keeping our brains in check by fulfilling certain portions of the ‘Healthy Mind Platter’. Working, for one, provides us with focus and connection on a day-to-day basis. What happens then, when retirement approaches for more senior employees? How will their brain health be affected, and will it be better for employers to retain them? Find the answers to these questions below, as well as sugge


How does working keep our mental facilities sharp?

With reference to the healthy mind platter, working in itself inherently provides us with 2 of the 7 key elements required for optimal brain function: focus time and connecting time.

Focus time is when our brains are actively being used to complete tasks throughout our daily lives. The mental stimulation that completing these tasks require is what helps keep the brain active and healthy. Being on the job provides us with these opportunities as we are kept busy with tasks and goals on a daily basis. As such, our brain is constantly being stimulated in many ways, including problem-solving, number-crunching, organising and writing, keeping it healthy.

The importance of the workplace being a stimulating environment for one’s brain cannot be understated. In fact, a 2010 study cited this as one of the main reasons for their findings, which was that employees who retired early showed more signs of cognitive decline after they turned 602. Another reason that was mentioned by the same study also shows the importance of focus time on brain health. The study found that people who were aiming to retire early had less incentive to learn new skills and gain more knowledge, thus their brains were more often stagnant, which led to greater mental decline as well.

While working allows our brain to have focus time, let us not forget that it provides us with another aspect of the mind platter: connecting time. This is the time where we interact with others on both a professional and personal level, which are also required for a healthy brain. Professional interactions and collaborations are a big part of any workplace. These collaborations exercise the brain through intellectual engagement with others, prompting brain processes such as information analysis, response formation and creative brainstorming, all of which keep the mind sharp. Beyond professional interactions, the workplace also serves as a consistent source of personal interactions since it is where we spend most of our time. Working and interacting with coworkers can lead to the formation of bonds and even friendships, which provides the healthy social interaction that the brain needs to stay healthy.

On the other hand, early retirement often leads to a drastic decrease in the amount of healthy social interaction that we get, as we no longer have access to the relationships that a workplace environment provides. This could lead to an increase in a general feeling of loneliness that has been linked to a decline in brain health. A 2019 study by Binghamton University supports this, with researchers finding that early retirement speeds up cognitive decline, mainly due to a lack of social engagement3. In fact, negative effects due to a lack of social interaction were so severe that it even outweighed the positive health effects of retirement, such as having more time to rest, exercise and eat healthily. This led the researchers to declare that “social engagement and connectedness may simply be the single most powerful factors for cognitive performance in old age.”


The benefits of retaining senior employees

Retaining our senior talent may just be one of the best ways to promote brain health amongst our employees, but the benefits of doing so can be just as compelling for employers. For the past decade or so, research has shown that older adults tend to have more consistent cognitive performances over time as compared to that of their younger coworkers. This can be attributed to their wealth of experience, knowledge and skills that provides them with a vast array of tools that lets them design unique problem solving strategies4. In turn, employers can continue to maintain a loyal, stable and capable talent pool. Having more settled employees also means that less time and resources will have to be spent on screening, hiring and training newcomers.

Other than the added advantage of stability, more senior employees tend to also bring with them the advantages of better decision-making expertise, honed leadership skills as well as wider networks that can only benefit the company. They can therefore get things done efficiently without too much hand-holding, and are less likely to make mistakes that inexperienced employees would otherwise be prone to.

When it comes down to it, senior employees are also in the position to be great mentors for their younger counterparts. Mentor relationships often go both ways, which means that there is additional support for bi-directional learning, as well as sustainable bonds that foster self-improvement in the company. In fact, studies have overwhelmingly backed the benefits of having greater age diversity in the workplace, with companies showing higher productivity levels when this requirement is fulfilled5. What this ultimately signifies is the importance of having good HR practices to improve age diversity and brain health in the company for further productivity and welfare benefits.

What else can employers do for employees’ brain health?

Since we have established that staying employed helps immensely with our brain health, the best thing that employers can do for the brain health of senior employees is to retain them rather instead of letting them retire. While retirement is inevitable, it is up to employers to encourage senior employees to stay on with the company, keeping their minds active and healthy. Usually, this involves letting the senior employees know that their contributions are still highly valued. Here are some steps that employers can take to do so.

Employers should explicitly provide employees with the option of staying on with the company even past retirement age. Providing senior employees with this option gives them the freedom of choice to do so. It also makes them aware of such a possibility, if it is not already known. Most importantly, this shows the desire of the employer to retain their senior employees, making them feel valued and welcome.

Setting up some form of mentorship programme, in which the senior employees take younger employees under their wing is also another step an employer can take. As stated above, senior employees have a wealth of experience that is invaluable and can be shared with the newer employees. It allows them to train successors, which makes transitions smoother. The mentorship programme would also be another indication that the company values the experience and knowledge of these senior workers, encouraging them to stay. Crucially, a mentorship programme would also allow for more connecting time as they will have to interact with their mentees, keeping their minds focused and engaged.

Employers can provide more learning opportunities for their senior employees as well. It is a common misconception that we become resistant to learning as we age. On the contrary, learning makes up a big part of focus time, which is key in keeping the brain sharp. By working with external course providers to offer skill refresher courses, as well as other new and relevant courses, we can keep our senior employees engaged and mentally stimulated, while also having them bring more value to the company.

Finally, to ensure that the needs of the senior employees are met, employers need to ensure that they have sufficient healthcare support in place for them, as well as make sure that any necessary accommodations that need to be made are also put in place. Employers should firstly ensure that proper healthcare coverage is provided for their employees. Allowing for more flexibility in the schedules of their senior employees could be another way to go, such as offering more medical leave, or giving time off for medical checkups. Other forms of workplace accommodations can also be implemented to make the workplace more comfortable and convenient. This can include the installation of better seating, ramps and lifts. By showing that the company continues to value and care for them by investing in the necessary resources, the provision of proper accommodations and adequate healthcare support for senior workers doubles as incentives for them to stay.

Beyond working to retain senior employees, employers can also put in place HR practices to help them fulfill the other 5 requirements of the Healthy Mind Platter. One example is to offer flexible work schedules. With this in place, it will allow senior employees to lead more balanced lives, allowing them to have time for themselves, their family and work. As such, they would mainly be able to fulfill down time, which allows the brain to relax and recharge, as well as time in, which allows for thoughts and reflections. On a larger scale, flexible schedules could also be a part of a phased retirement plan, where the senior employees decrease their working hours gradually before they ultimately retire. This allows for smoother transitions in the company.


Over to you

In this digital age, our emphasis on technology and efficiency has led us to focus on the young and tech-savvy generations. Meanwhile, our senior workers are often stereotyped and sidelined as a result of this digital transformation. However, in Singapore, with our ageing workforce and growing labour requirements, there is a need to retain our senior workers. After all, Singapore’s economy has always been based on our labour force, and to shy away or discriminate against senior workers goes against our core philosophy of tapping into the potential of every worker.

All this can be achieved with proper support from the HR departments, who have various roles to play in the entire process, with regards to both implementing both the hiring and welfare policies. Ultimately, companies and firms are the ones in-charge of manpower decisions, and it is crucial we recognise the value of senior workers by fighting against misconceptions that they are subject to cognitive decline with age. In doing so, there is also the additional benefit of ensuring that our senior employees remain cognitively sharp and mentally healthy. This way, everybody wins.

 

 

Resources:
1. Siegel, D., & Rock, D. (2011). Healthy Mind Platter.
2. Rohwedder, S., & Willis, R. J. (2010). Mental Retirement. The journal of economic perspectives : a journal of the American Economic Association
3. ScienceDaily. (2019). Early retirement can accelerate cognitive decline.
4. Rivers, C., & Barnett, R. (2016). Older workers can be more reliable and productive than their younger counterparts. Vox.
5. Hannon, K. (2019). 10 Reasons To Hire and Retain Workers 50+. Forbes.

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