Ann Lawthers was so tired of working 60 hours a week that she felt she was losing her ability to manage and make decisions. She feared burning out.
But instead of quitting her job as a senior manager at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, she asked her supervisors whether she could work part time. It was an unusual request, but the medical school readily obliged. The school reduced her responsibilities, enabling her to become one of a handful of senior managers working just three days a week.
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"I think they saw me as a valuable employee that they didn't want to lose," said Lawthers, 59, quality director of the medical school's Office of Clinical Affairs.
Now she comes to work feeling refreshed and more productive. "For me to be an effective member of the workforce here, I needed to do something for me."
That willingness to offer Lawthers and other older employees alternative work arrangements is one reason that the school was honored by AARP as one of its 2011 Best Employers for Workers Over 50.
This is the first time the school, based in Worcester, has won the honor. It joins three other employers in the state that are repeat winners: DentaQuest of Charlestown, Massachusetts General Hospital of Boston, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Deborah Banda, state director of AARP Massachusetts, praised the medical school's ongoing efforts to accommodate older workers' needs, citing its use of speech recognition computer software for workers with disabilities and its plans to offer temporary work opportunities to retirees.
A third are over 50
Such innovations are not merely "feel-good programs," but critical to business success, Banda said. With the pool of younger workers shrinking, companies "will need to look toward retaining and recruiting older workers."
About three years ago, the University of Massachusetts Medical School began focusing on ways to support mature workers because it was losing almost 10 percent of its employees over 50 every year.
"If we didn't do anything, we'd be in a lot of trouble in 10 years," said Patricia Keith, who chairs the company's mature workforce committee. "We'd lose a lot of institutional knowledge."
About a third of the school's nearly 5,700 employees are over 50 and more than half are over 40, Keith said.
The medical school won a $50,000 state grant to devise strategies to retain older workers in 2008. After surveying older workers, the school instituted a Work-Life Program and added numerous services.
Among the innovations, the school offered more flexible work schedules, set up walking trails around the campus and improved nutritional labeling on cafeteria food.
Employees can take free classes and earn credits toward a master's degree in public health. There's a plethora of brown bag seminars including how to design a website and learning how laughter can reduce workplace stress. In addition, the school hosts farmers markets, a dry cleaner, and has also offered meal pickups on campus.
"Although many of the changes are very good for the mature worker, they also benefit the entire community," Keith said.
Hiring seems to be age-blind, said Susanna Perkins, an administrative manager, citing the last two hires in her office. The medical school interviewed more than eight people for each position, and "the best people for the job just happened to be over 50."
She noted that the school has been extremely accommodating to employees who need to care for aging parents, and that many workers take advantage of flexible schedules. "They do a lot for you," Perkins said, recalling private-sector employers who were not nearly as worker-friendly. "I wish I had come here earlier."
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Rochelle Sharpe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning freelance writer based in Brookline, Mass.