Aging Workforce: Employees Who Are Healthy and in Control Stay Working

Topic(s): burnout, job satisfaction, turnover, work-life balance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Individual and Work Factors Related to Perceived Work Ability and Labor Force Outcomes
Authors: A.K. McGonagle, G.G. Fisher, J.L. Barnes-Farrell, J.W. Grosch
Reviewed by: Lia Engelsted

In our currently aging workforce, one in five US workers are now 55 or older. Given this changing demographic, it is important to identify the factors that lead to early departure from the workforce. One of the critical factors is perceived work ability, or the balance between personal resources and work characteristics. In order to prevent premature departure of the workforce, this study (McGonagle, Fisher, Barnes-Farrell, & Grosch, 2015) identified what leads to perceived work ability, and what happens when employees experience it.


The authors explain that perceived work ability is when employees believe they have the ability to continue their jobs. One way to understand this is through the job demands-resources model. According to this model, individuals must balance job demands with job resources. Job demands can include anything that requires physical or mental effort, such as time pressure. Job resources are factors that promote work engagement, such as autonomy or supportive supervisors. Individuals may also employ personal resources, such as personality characteristics or health, to combat the demands of work.

After weighing all of these pros and cons associated with the job, people decide if situations or events are threatening or harmless. If the situations or events are consistently threatening or straining, then the individual will be more likely to discontinue his or her job.


Workers considering retirement weigh “push” and “pull” factors. Push factors are the “negative aspects of the work environment that may push one out of the workforce (e.g., a stressful work environment, low levels of supervisor support).” Pull factors are the positive aspects of the work environment that pull one towards remaining at work. Based on the individual’s perceived work ability, which is determined by job demands and resources, individuals will be pushed out of work or pulled into work.


Using three different samples of data, the authors found evidence that workers’ personal resources, specifically self-reported health and sense of control, were the strongest precursors to perceived work ability in a range of occupations. In manufacturing organizations, the personal resources of health status and sense of control as well as the job demands of environmental conditions, physical demands, and working in difficult body positions were significant predictors of perceived work ability. After controlling for other variables, the researchers found that perceived work ability contributed to absenteeism, retirement, and disability leave. Interestingly, the authors did not find a relationship between age and work ability, whereas many other researchers have found that older workers report lower work ability.


The study found evidence that perceived work ability is an important psychological mechanism that can determine whether a worker will remain in or withdraw from the workforce. An individual’s personal resources, specifically health and sense of control, contribute to perceived work ability, which in turn can explain why some employees have increased absenteeism, increased disability leave, or choose to retire earlier. Therefore, organizations should promote healthy practices and try to boost personal psychological resources in order to keep aging workers in their jobs. This can include increasing employees’ sense of self-control, lowering job demands, and ensuring safe environmental conditions.


McGonagle, A. K., Fisher, G. G., Barnes-Farrell, J. L., & Grosch, J. W. (2015). Individual and work factors related to perceived work ability and labor force outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 376-398.