How climate change is impacting mental health — and what employers can do

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Driven by climate change, an increasing number of extreme weather events are making the news. All-time high-temperature records were set throughout much of the U.S. in July, four major winter storms buried the Northeast earlier this year, and much of south Texas is still rebuilding from the devastation of recent hurricanes.

Extreme weather damages more than buildings and forests, however. A recent analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the effects of heat stress on outdoor workers, while a study published in Nature Climate Change found greater use of depressive language in social media when the temperature rises, as well as an increase in the number of suicides.

New research from the Integrated Benefits Institute goes even further, showing how often employers’ short-term disability insurance policies incur claims for several conditions impacted by climate change. These result in lost income for employees and lost productivity for employers and society-at-large — all of which may become more severe in the wake of extreme climate events. Our analysis found:

· Overall, about 1 in 20 U.S. employees with short-term, non-occupational disability insurance had a claim for leave in any given year.
· Collectively, anxiety disorders, acute stress reaction, adjustment reaction, depression, ischemic heart disease, heart failure, cerebrovascular disease, respiratory infections, upper respiratory disease, pneumonia and asthma/COPD comprised about 1 in 7 claims for short-term, non-occupational disability leaves.

All this considered, it’s vital employers take action as climate change impacts the health, productivity and well-being of their workforce. Our findings suggest that productivity losses due to absences may continue even after business operations have recovered from an extreme weather event. For that reason, the operational impact of extended absences should be incorporated into existing risk assessments and business continuity plans.

Including coordinated absence management policies and employee assistance programs as part of a company’s disaster recovery strategy can help mitigate some of these longer-term productivity losses — particularly if information about these services is shared with employees as part of a company’s emergency communications toolkit. Healthcare and disability carriers also can be important partners in business continuity plans by providing guidance on benefit and pharmacy-related questions and extending call center hours for members and providers.

It’s also important that employers develop a better understanding of their particular risks for conditions impacted by different types of extreme weather events.

While IBI’s analysis shows that some climate-impacted conditions are more common in some states than others, a closer analysis of changes in leave rates for specific diagnoses following localized extreme weather events — such as hurricanes, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and flooding — is warranted.

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