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Workplace Disabilities

According to an analysis of disability trends gleaned from MetLife's database of short- and long-term disability claims data, the top five chronic causes of workplace disability include: lower back disorders, depression, coronary heart disease, arthritis and pulmonary diseases.  Each year, these illnesses account for nearly 30% of all long-term disability claims MetLife receives and have been estimated to cost employers more than $500 billion in employee absences, diminished productivity and increased healthcare costs.  The good news is that these disabilities and costs can be managed and, in many cases, significantly reduced.

Ronald S. Leopold, MD, National Medical Director and Vice President of MetLife Disability has collated and analysed this data in "A Year in the Life of A Million American Workers", a reader-friendly research guide to be published in 2004. According to his analysis, the following five chronic conditions are the most common causes of workplace disability based upon short term disability (STD) and long-term disability (LTD) claims.

#1: Lower Back Disorders

For every one million workers, MetLife receives an estimated 5,470 STD claims for lower back strain and 2,883 STD claims for inter-vertebral disc disorders each year. Half of employees on disability for lower back strain will be absent from work for at least a month. Half of those with disc disorders are out for more than two months.   Another 550 LTD claims are filed each year because of lower back conditions; approximately 40% of these people will require benefits for more than three years. Conservative estimates of the economic burden of these conditions ( as measured by compensation costs, lost wages and lost productivity) are between $45 and $54 billion annually, according to the Institute of Medicine.

#2: Depression

For every one million workers, MetLife receives approximately 3,374 STD claims and 222 LTD depression-related claims each year.  While STD claims for depression are spread evenly among all age categories, the rate of depression is slightly higher for women and also higher in more sedentary jobs.  One-third of employees absent from work due to depression will be out for more than a month.  The estimated economic cost to the workplace for employees' depression is $44 billion, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

#3: Coronary Heart Disease

For every one million workers, MetLife receives approximately 1,833 STD and 104 LTD claims for coronary artery disease in a given year.  These claims are higher for men than women and higher among older employees.  Nearly two-thirds of employees on short-term disability for this condition will be out of work for at least a month.  Americans will pay about $352 billion in 2003 for related medical costs for this disability, according to the American Heart Association.

#4: Arthritis

For every one million workers, MetLife receives 1,715 arthritis-related STD and 170 LTD claims. Half of employees receiving short-term disability benefits for this condition will be absent for at least two months.   Overall, experts estimate that 60 million Americans (or nearly 20% of the population) will be affected by arthritis by 2020.  The average long-term disability recipient for this condition will be out of the workplace for more than six years.   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the total cost associated with arthritis (including medical care and lost productivity) exceeds $65 billion annually.

#5: Pulmonary Diseases

MetLife estimates that, out of every one million workers, there will be 1,467 STD claims and 74 LTD claims for pulmonary diseases annually.  These disability claims are most commonly caused by asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.   About 30% of these employees will miss more than a month of work.   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the cost to the U.S. economy for asthma alone is a staggering $12.7 billion and growing.

What can employers do to reduce these claims, costs, and consequences?  Dr. Leopold recommends that employers focus on prevention, workplace adjustments and absence management.  "These steps can include investing in health and wellness programs, employee assistance programs, or making adjustments to their medical coverage to facilitate early treatment for the conditions most markedly affecting their employees," says Dr. Leopold.

For more information about depression or other mental health issues, click here.

Created: 11/24/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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