16 Aug 2018

Sustainable work - what and why

Our working age population around the world is shrinking at the same time as the retirement population is expanding. So employers and workers need to think differently about the nature of work to keep it sustainable for longer.

For employers this means improving job quality for motivated skilled workers to stay longer in jobs.  Job quality is influenced by earnings, prospects, the intrinsic aspects of the role and work flexibility.

For workers this means staying up to date, looking after health and well-being and having transferable skills.

The Workplace

Employers need to consider intrinsic job quality (physical environment, work intensity and social environment) to attract and retain workers of all ages.

Working time arrangements - duration, scheduling and flexibility - and remote working options are particularly important. For example, flexible hours and part-time options free up time for other activities like carer responsibilities or voluntary work.  

A sustainable workplace understands the importance and benefits of wellness programmes (healthy eating, active lifestyles, mental health and smoking cessation) to support workers with their own health and wellbeing.  

Sustainable work practices include age friendly initiatives, diversity management and cultures that value differences and utilise complementary characteristics of workers at different life stages. 

Employer-led initiatives (age-awareness training, lifelong learning strategies, coaching and mentoring) can foster inter-generational transfer of knowledge and prevent premature exits.  

The Individual

Many skilled mature workers are choosing to stay longer in the workforce rather than retire at age 65 – often because they feel valued and socially connected as much as for financial reasons.  

To do this, staying up to date and having transferable skills are essential for improving employability. Investing in lifelong learning and making better lifestyle choices form the basis for staying active and valued workplace participants. 

While maintaining an income is a primary motivation for working, this may change during an individual’s working life. Feeling valued for doing meaningful work can become more important, so individuals who recognise this will use it to guide their work choices.  

Mechanisation of physical work, artificial intelligence and digital systems are continually forcing change so individuals need to be able to springboard existing skills into emerging areas.

Added to this is the reality of extended gaps to be a caregiver (for young children or dependant), for health or lifestyle reasons which can make it harder to re-enter the workforce. Refreshing core digital skills will help workers maintain their employability when they choose (or need) to take breaks.

Key elements

Smoothing work transitions at different stages has become more critical for sustainable work.

Employers and individuals have a mutual interest in maintaining a sustainable workplace and both can benefit from easier transitions between jobs, employment, periods of learning or caring, transitions back to work after health setbacks, and smoother transitions towards retirement.

The sustainable work challenge is matching the quality and availability of jobs with the needs and abilities of individuals over extended working lives.


Mary Somervell

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