Cognitive decline is a tricky subject. It can be caused by a variety of factors – from natural aging to hypothyroidism to Alzheimer’s disease. Sometimes, the symptoms are treatable and reversible. But in other cases, cognitive struggles indicate the onset of a serious underlying illness that will eventually become debilitating. Either way, working alongside a person with cognitive issues can be difficult. It’s okay to admit that.
But what can you do to support someone who suffers from increased confusion, memory loss, a shorter attention span, or other cognitive challenges? And how can you minimize safety risks that could harm that individual or others on their team?
Putting People First
Let’s start with mindset. Sweeping generalizations and business rules aren’t helpful when addressing specific cases of cognitive decline. Mental capacity is a sensitive issue. Therefore, tact and prudence are of utmost importance when discussing this topic.
Every situation is complex and unique. It requires awareness of an individual’s industry, organization, job responsibilities, performance history, and work context. Therefore, it makes sense to respond in a personalized way.
Nevertheless, employers can’t deny broader societal factors that are making conversations about cognitive decline much more important and more commonplace.
Coming to Terms with our Aging Workforce
We’re all aging. It’s a fact of life. But now, significant generational shifts are beginning to shape the future workplace. For example, Americans are living longer, and more of us are working later in life.
Although I’m a fan of encouraging older people to participate in the workforce, it’s time for organizational leaders to address age-related cognitive decline. By becoming more educated and cautiously protecting all employees, employers will be better equipped to support our aging workforce.
Here’s why this is so important. Recently, the Harvard Law School Bill of Health newsletter published some staggering statistics in its article, “Managing Cognitive Decline Concerns in the Workplace:“
- By 2034, about 77 million U.S. residents will be senior citizens. That’s about 21% of our nation’s population.
- After age 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years. And nearly one-third of people over 85 have this disease.
Of course, Alzheimer’s is only one cause of cognitive decline. However, because so many people are touched by its ripple effects — family, friends, and work colleagues — it illustrates how devastating cognitive decline is likely to be as Americans continue to age.
Soon, most of us will know, love or work with someone touched by Alzheimer’s or another form of cognitive decline. So, how can we prepare to handle this professionally, legally, and with grace?
The Impact of Cognitive Decline at Work
When cognitive changes impact reliability – and even trust – it becomes a larger issue for leaders and teammates. Memory loss, difficulty with multi-tasking or problem-solving, and even personality changes can upset and distract colleagues.
It’s important to treat this topic with compassion. But that means care and concern should also extend to co-workers who are directly experiencing these effects. Keep the door open for discreet conversations about their concerns, and invite input on how to improve the situation.
SHRM offers multiple recommendations in its article, “Coping with Cognitive Declines at Work.” These are some suggested priorities for employers:
- Conduct a Safety Assessment. The need for this is more obvious in certain lines of work, where rapid response is critical. However, it can be a factor in other professions, as well. There are multiple ways to determine if a person is safe to work.
- Engage Employees. Non-confrontational conversations about specific concerns are an opportunity to find out more about what’s going on and open lines of communication for future dialogue.
- Keep Thorough Records. Take notes that detail your concerns. Repeated instances of missed deadlines, significant memory lapses, or behavior problems may be helpful down the line. Stick to the facts and steer clear of age-related commentary.
Let’s start at the top. There is no reason to draft a policy that defines workability or retirement readiness. Mandated retirement policies are illegal.
Larger organizations with legal counsel are well aware of The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. However, if you’re a leader at a new or smaller company, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the basics of this law.
Also, if you need a refresher, be sure to take the time to revisit these regulations. Understanding the legal parameters of hiring, firing, and pushing retirement based on age is a savvy business move. It’s worth your while because the business risks of acting outside the legal lines can be significant.
Cognitive testing is also dicey from an ethical and legal perspective. Harvard says, “Testing older employees who have no job performance deficits, but not testing younger ones, violates the core principles of the ADEA.”
And that’s not all. It also violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law permits employers to test employees only if the assessment is job-related and consistent with business necessity. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, testing is permitted only if it is “triggered by evidence of current performance problems.”
So, to avoid claims of age discrimination, will employers want to administer cognitive tests to all employees? Let’s not go there, either. It triggers a slew of concerns related to ADA, Title VII, and other discriminatory issues.
Lastly, it’s important to consider the tremendous medical advances that have led to predictive tests and markers associated with cognitive decline. However, it seems logical to leave those medical procedures to employees’ families. That said, if an employee brings these findings to your desk, be prepared to align your discussion with ADA regulations.
Solutions Start With Education
You may wonder why I’ve been investigating this topic. To be honest, it comes from a personal place. Someone dear to me was deeply concerned about a coworker’s cognitive decline.
I am sure I’m not alone. More and more of us are crossing paths with people who display cognitive changes or have been diagnosed with a related condition. Some of you have been caretakers for those who have experienced cognitive impairment.
This is a triggering and heart-wrenching topic. It’s delicate. But it’s important. And if you are an employer or people manager you’ll likely find yourself affected by it more frequently, going forward. My best advice? Educate yourself.
Upon exploring this topic – and then writing about it – I’ve felt some anxiety and dread. But knowledge is power. And fortunately, there is an abundance of reliable information at our fingertips.
It’s important to be curious and forward-thinking about a topic like this. It’s equally important to understand the law, as well as the needs of people who may be unsure and fearful about their own diminishing cognitive capabilities.
If this is new territory for you, don’t be afraid to ask questions, read up, take notes, and admit that you are learning. But watch your language, mind your approach, and make decisions carefully. Err on the side of caution and care. And remember that kindness is always a good move.
Alzheimer’s Association: This organization offers many resources, including:
10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
Mild Cognitive Impairment
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:
Mental Health Provider’s Role in a Request for Reasonable Accommodation at Work
Workplace Strategies for Mental Health (via Canada Life):
Dementia Response for Leaders