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Human Resources

Retirement?s Other Side: Addressing the Emotional Consequences

Part two of a two-part column on retirement planning at colleges and universities
University Business, Nov 2008

IT’S CERTAINLY IMPORTANT to help employees build their retirement funds, but should college and university employers be doing more? The September Human Resources column featured best practices from HR professionals about how they prepare employees for retirement. Most provide workers with periodic financial projections, online investment tools, and a variety of workshops that focus on retirement savings growth. Besides the financial aspect of retirement, more attention may need to be paid to the other side of retirement, one that’s often overlooked?the emotional aspects of this stage of life.

Retirees may shy away
from seeking counseling
through support programs.

For some, the emotional consequences of retirement can be severe, producing feelings that range from isolation to lack of self-worth. While most higher education institutions support employee assistance programs, people may shy away from seeking counseling. Others falsely believe they can handle the transition when just the opposite is true. So some IHEs have programs to help retirees adjust to their changing lifestyle.

In 2002, Northeastern University and other Boston schools created a program under the umbrella of The Boston Consortium, a group of 14 local colleges and universities that create initiatives to address common issues. Five of those IHEs piloted a project that brought together faculty from their schools to talk about the transition from their current role to the next phase of their life, explains Kater Pendergast, vice president of human resource management at the university.

“Some of the richness of the program was that it was done together,” she says, adding that participants also represented faculty from Boston College, Wellesley College, Tufts University, and Babson College. “There’s this whole other 30 years that people want to be prepared for.”

The program focused on all aspects of retirement. Would employees have enough retirement income to live on? How would they spend their time? What purpose would fill their lives?

A series of group meetings and individual sessions (with partners or spouses sometimes included) was led by consultants with expertise in developing programs for mature adults. The semester-long program ran each year between 2003 and 2006.

The program idea itself, however, wasn’t a quick sell, in part because of its hefty $4,000 per person price tag. Still, Pendergast says, roughly 50 people in total attended the three separate programs. Twenty were from Northeastern.

Each school promoted the program differently. At Northeastern, people in the provost area identified potential participants while Pendergast solicited individual faculty and opinion leaders for their participation and referrals, which she says proved to be very effective.

Her institution is considering the program again for next year. Meanwhile, HR periodically invites retired faculty to a luncheon so they can stay in touch. “The most common comment from people who retire is, ‘I wish I had done it sooner,’ ” Pendergast says, adding that “all of them said, ‘I should have done more planning.’ ”

Misconceptions about retirement are fairly common. In July, the MetLife Mature Market Institute (MMI) surveyed more than 1,200 working people between the ages of 55 and 65 about retirement income issues. Almost seven in 10 (69 percent) overestimated how much they could withdraw from their savings each month. Forty-three percent believed they could withdraw 10 percent or more each year while still preserving their principal, even though most retirement experts suggest no more than 4 percent annually.

More than half (60 percent) underestimated life expectancy, while 49 percent underestimated the amount of pre-retirement income they’ll need during retirement. Worse yet, 45 percent live paycheck to paycheck, 26 percent sometimes struggle to pay bills, 69 percent don’t feel they’re in control of their finances, and 51 percent don’t know how many years of retirement they have planned for, according to survey results.

“The bottom line for employers is to think holistically,” says Sandra Timmerman, director of MMI, based in Westport, Conn. “There’s a growing interest in helping people [near retirement] with three elements in their life: money, how to deal with health care and health care costs, and what is their purpose in life.”

Years ago, while working at a university, Rebecca Kiki Weingarten watched some of her colleagues retire, then fall apart emotionally. “I was in my early 20s and they were my mentors,” says Weingarten, now president of Daily Life Consulting, based in New York. “I also worked with a woman who worked for 30 years as a university professor and retired. She told me she spent 14 months in her nightgown. She could not get herself together. She lost her identity.”

At the very least, Weingarten suggests that schools provide retirees with an opportunity each fall to network or intellectually engage with former colleagues. Retirees can also speak at workshops about their own retirement experiences, helping those who are about to retire learn from their mistakes.

But there are actually quite a few topics that retirement workshops can address. Besides the psychological transition, Weingarten suggests how to:

--Change one’s identity. People often base their self-worth on their work or profession.

--Identify one’s skills, develop new skills, and transfer them to other jobs.

--Use current technology to teach or mentor online.

--Explore new interests.

--Positively handle changes and prevent falling into negative patterns.

IHEs can also use workshops as vehicles to recruit volunteers or part-timers, with an HR representative attending to describe available positions and how employees can transfer into other jobs based on their skills and experience.

Some IHEs offer flexible work schedules, enabling older employees seeking a second career, perhaps for after retirement, to attend classes for enrichment or to earn a degree, adds Christine Faris, senior manager at Smart Business Advisory and Consulting in Devon, Pa. “I’m seeing this at the community college and university level,” she says. “Older people feel good about helping society and doing something good with the rest of their lives. The sectors that seem to be of particular interest are nursing and social services.”

Betsy Wiggins encourages employees to develop a retirement plan at least three months before they retire. As chief executive officer at New Jersey-based Creative Retirement Solutions, Wiggins asks them to create a daily schedule and identify their new friends or support system, special interests, social or networking opportunities, and purpose in life. “There’s probably something they always wanted to do, like learn Japanese, but couldn’t because they were always working,” she says.

A counselor or coach should follow up on retirees’ progress in meeting goals. Many times, Wiggins says, they just need to be reminded to stay on track or feel that somebody really cares about them.

Helping retirees stay physically active is also important. Wiggins recommends creating and promoting exercise programs solely for this group, offering a way for them to socialize with past co-workers.

There are dozens of ways that IHEs can help employees prepare for retirement. Take a look at the programs your school offers. Are they well-balanced, or is there a large gap? Do mature workers understand what lies ahead? Do they possess the skills to cope with lifestyle changes that will occur?

Many of these employees spent the majority of their lives helping your school succeed. Now it’s your turn to help them succeed in what may be the biggest challenge of their lives.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR topics.