Joint disorders are increasing — and 4 other key disability trends

Most workers today are not prepared to handle the financial impact of an illness or injury that would result in time away from work and a regular paycheck.

Disability insurance should be a staple for a family’s financial foundation. It protects people’s most important asset: their ability to earn an income. It’s also a critical part of a benefits portfolio for any employer looking to offer a competitive package and help offset the rising costs of healthcare.

As the world’s largest provider of disability insurance, we know a lot about what causes disability. Here are 5 intriguing trends we found in a 10-year review of Unum’s disability claims data.

Senior Male Patient Visiting Doctor's Office With Back Ache

1. Better outcomes for back disorders

Back disorders are the No. 3 cause of long-term disability. While short-term disability claims for back disorders have remained steady, long-term disability claims for these conditions have decreased 14%.

This can be partly attributed to the evolution of treatment. Patients used to be prescribed restricted activity and pain medication. But, today, the health benefits of an active recovery are clear, and rehabilitation and exercise are critical pieces of a patient’s treatment plan.

2. Aging and obesity tip the scales

Disability claims for joint disorders and musculoskeletal issues have increased significantly. Data over the last decade shows:

A 35% increase in long-term disability claims and 20% increase in short-term disability claims for musculoskeletal issues

A 30% increase in long-term disability claims and 27% increase in short-term disability claims for joint disorders.

Two particular trends are driving this experience: Aging baby boomers are staying in the workforce longer, and more than a third of U.S. adults are classified as overweight or obese.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2022, more than 30% of people ages 65-74 will still be working, up from 20% in 2002. With advancing age, natural wear and tear on the body begins to take its toll.
Baby nursery maternity

3. Good news for moms and babies

The No. 1 cause of short-term disability is pregnancy. That’s because new moms can use short term disability coverage as paid maternity leave while they recover after child birth.

Long-term disability claims for complicated pregnancies have decreased 48% over the last decade. There are a few trends driving this experience, like fewer C-section deliveries, early detection and intervention in high-risk pregnancies, and access to more resources for new moms.
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4. Specialized mental health support sparks better return-to-work outcomes

Mental health issues may be less visible than other disabilities, but they are no less serious. They are a leading cause of disability in the U.S. and will be the leading cause of lost productivity costs by 2030, according to the World Health Organization.

Our experience shows that a dedicated protocol for managing behavioral health claims helps customers experience more favorable return-to-work outcomes. A strategic mix of early intervention, triaged specialist support, and partnership among employers, medical experts, and vocational rehabilitation consultants can lead to a reduction in the number of short term disability claims transitioning to long-term disability claims, and better return-to-work success.

No two behavioral health claims are alike, so customized return-to-work plans focused on removing barriers and stigma in the workplace and maintaining engagement and advocacy for the employee are key.
Woman with Breast Cancer Receiving Chemotherapy; caregiver looking on.

5. Cancer continues to top the charts

Cancer is the No. 1 cause of long-term disability and is one of the most costly diseases in the United States. Breast cancer is the most common type of malignant cancer found in disability claims. Although breast cancer claims are on the rise, we’re finding that survivors are spending less time out of work.

Early detection is a likely driver of the increase in breast cancer claims, and advances in medical treatment have led to fewer side effects during treatment and improvements in recovery and long-term survival rates.

Unum’s Workforce Solutions Group offers employers best practices and guidance on how they can support workers through cancer diagnosis and treatment, and provide necessary support and workplace accommodations for those returning to work.

Aside from protecting employees financially, the services and support an employer receives with a group disability plan can help them save lost workdays and costs associated with absenteeism and presenteeism.

In 2018, Unum helped employers save nearly 69,000 lost workdays and $32 million through transitional return-to-work efforts for covered employees.