Brain power

Work design can help older workers learn new skills

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

In a previous article, I addressed the stereotype that older workers are stuck in their ways and unwilling to learn new things.  Not only is it wholly inaccurate, but it understandably inhibits the potential for older workers to learn, and therefore becomes self-fulfilling.

It’s vital, therefore, that the right environment is provided so that older workers can learn successfully, and a recent study1 from Curtin University highlights the crucial role work design can play.  It’s something that the researchers believe is especially important given the changing demographics in western society.

“We have a huge amount of population aging in Western countries and it’s really important to have a workforce that is still functioning and learning. Good work design can help our cognitive functioning,” they explain.

Cognitive health

The researchers outline five distinct factors that help to support our cognitive health at work:

  1. Autonomy, including the freedom to make decisions, the opportunity to choose work hours, and the independence to choose the method for getting the job done.
  2. Feedback, such as input from clients, customers, and peers, as well as performance appraisals.
  3. Complexity, defined as job demands on workers that require aptitude, skills, training, thought, creativity, and judgment.
  4. Relational aspects, such as social contact, support, dependence on teammates to accomplish tasks, and interaction outside organizations.
  5. Psychosocial demands, including workloads and emotional demands of the job.

The researchers analyzed the connection between work design and cognition and were able to identify key factors, such as feedback, autonomy, and complexity.  When these factors are present in the workplace, they create more opportunities for people to learn.

Work design

Three distinct profiles were created for three hypothetical salespeople, each with a unique work design.

  • A salesperson is exposed to chronic levels of low control and high demands, contributing to a heart attack in middle age that results in a loss of cognitive function.
  • A salesperson regularly engages in complex tasks during her career. As a result, she has preserved her ability to function, reducing the amount of cognitive decline she experiences at age 60.
  • A salesperson works for many years in an autonomous, enriched job with positive relational and psychosocial aspects. As a result, he acquires deep expertise, which leads to more autonomy and feedback that promotes greater knowledge and wisdom. At age 65, he mentors junior salespeople on how to manage complex projects.

The authors find that job crafting is a particularly effective method for providing employees with more autonomy over their work.  Employees can also strive to obtain positions or projects that give them a more enriched work design.

“Managers should aim to design and structure work in a way that can minimize job stressors, boredom, and fatigue and to provide instrumental and social support to employees when possible to help alleviate or buffer potential stressors. Avoiding overprescribed work procedures and excessively standardized protocols, such as increasingly prevalent in knowledge work (teachers being required to follow highly prescribed lesson plans), is one example of how organizational practices need to be altered to foster greater job autonomy and its associated cognitive benefits,” the authors say.

They believe that policymakers should also be interested in work design and introduce national policies to promote things such as health and safety, job security, and automation, with the cognitive wellbeing of society at the forefront throughout.  For example, if people are given more control over their work hours, this could allow them to better allocate tasks according to their available cognitive resources.

“Enriched work designs—high in autonomy, feedback, complexity, and support—enhance workers’ work experiences, and thereby, in the longer term, accelerate and maintain mature workers’ development of wisdom and deep expertise,” the researchers conclude.

Article source: Work Design Can Help Older Workers Learn New Skills.

Header image source: iStock.


  1. Parker, S., Ward, M. K., & Fisher, G. (2021). Can High-Quality Jobs Help Workers Learn New Tricks? A Multi-Disciplinary Review of Work Design For Cognition. Academy of Management Annals. DOI: 10.5465/annals.2019.0057
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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