3 learnings about sustainable employability

Much has been said about the increased retirement age in Belgium – 66 years of age by the year 2025, and 67 years of age by 2030. One recurring theme is that working until a later age is only feasible if employees are healthy and job duties are manageable. To achieve this, a strong interaction between real-life practices and the academic system is more crucial than ever.

Mathieu Verbrugghe (PhD) works as a researcher at Mensura and attended two conferences on sustainable employability: INCOSE in Brussels and Wahe in Wuppertal, Germany. Here are the three key learnings he took away from the events:

1. Sustainable employability starts at the beginning of a career

The debate on sustainable employability often focuses solely on employees who have quite a few years of experience behind them. It is true that if the overall aim is to keep people working until a later age, then the expertise and social skills of older workers should be valued much more. However, it is important to remember that sustainable employability should be promoted from the early stages of one’s career onwards.  

Our work-life balance, awareness about health, skills, learning methods, what our work means to us, etc., are things that can change as the years go by. That is why different approaches are needed for employees at various stages in their career.

2. Sustainable employability involves the entire organisation

Sustainable employability hinges on the values, standards, motivation and identity upheld by the employees and by the entire organisation. Herman Van de Velde, manager of lingerie manufacturing company Van de Velde, talked about this during the INCOSE event, based on a real-life example.

To enable employees to keep working until a later age while maintaining their health and vitality, Van de Velde invests in the following aspects, among other things:

  • job duties – by ensuring that each job comes with varied duties and by creating a polyvalent workforce where employees are familiar with a number of different jobs, each member of staff can be employed anywhere in the production process and the sense of commitment and enthusiasm among workers will increase;
  • motivation – can be boosted by introducing incentives that are not based on quantity but on how tasks are completed;
  • company culture – ensure that employees are passionate about their work by giving them more authority, by ensuring that all communication and feedback is transparent, and by creating inspiring objectives.

3. Work capacity in line with the broader social context

Globalisation, increased diversity, digitisation, new values, demographic shifts: our society is changing all the time and the labour market is changing in response. The result? Our work capacity – the degree to which we are physically and mentally capable of performing our job duties – is coming under pressure.

According to Finnish Prof. Juhani Ilmarinen, we have to look at work capacity like a house. Its solidity is determined by a careful balance between the employee’s personal circumstances, job demands and work environment. To keep the so-called ‘Work Capacity House’ standing in today’s society, we need to keep up with global trends. We need to switch to ‘workable work’ that is motivating, offers learning opportunities and strikes a successful balance between work and private life. Some of the things that can be improved (cf. the European Workage project):

  • ensuring that job duties are better aligned with the employee – in terms of quantity as well as the employee’s cognitive and physical capabilities;
  • greater job control;
  • innovative work methods in support of better organisational and management structures;
  • more co-leadership and input from employees;
  • greater intrinsic job quality.

This will benefit not only the employees but the organisation as well. Better performance at work leads to reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, reduced employee turnover and a better employer image.

Where science and day-to-day practices meet

All companies are unique and should promote the sustainable employability of their workforce by taking specific measures, this much is clear. To use this uniqueness and diversity towards the best possible outcome, the corporate and scientific communities will need to work together much more closely. This story is not yet complete!