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Cigna: 20 years of disability claims data reveals emerging workforce productivity challenges

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Employee absences related to obesity, skin cancer and back surgery have increased significantly from 1993 to 2012, according to an analysis by the health insurer Cigna of 20 years of its short-term disability claims.

The study also found a decline in absences related to depression, coupled with increased use of antidepressant drugs could show a hidden problem.

Cigna said employers can use its analysis of employee health trends to help design wellness and absence management programs that improve workforce productivity.

“Employers who focus on productivity as an outcome will succeed in the future. Though medical advances have helped improve the quality of life for many people, lifestyle and behavioral factors remain key drivers of absence,” Dr. Robert Anfield, chief medical officer for Cigna's disability insurance unit, said in a prepared statement. “Employers must address these triggers with earlier intervention, vocational rehabilitation services and wellness programs.”

Cigna citeda U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that American businesses lose an average of 2.8 million work days each year due to unplanned absences, costing employers more than $74 billion. The most frequently approved short-term disability claims, both 20 years ago and today, remain musculoskeletal disorders, which make up 25 percent of all non-maternity absence.

“The aging workforce and a trend towards growing waistlines has made some medical conditions more dominant factors for short-term disabilities than they were 20 years ago,” Anfield said in the statement. “For example, arthritis and tendonitis-related absences have both increased more than 50 percent since 1993.”

As new techniques have improved the effectiveness of back surgery, the number of procedures has gone up and the average amount of time out of work has decreased, the study found.

At the same time, these medical advances led to an increase in the number of eligible candidates for surgery and an overall net increase in lost time from work. Cigna said its data shows a 45 percent increase in work absence for this condition, the most significant increase in short-term disability claims among sedentary occupations over the 20 year period.

Cigna urged employers to look at employee work stations to find way to reduce back and muscle ailments.

The Cigna study noted that over the last 20 years, the number of obese Americans has doubled, while in that period Cigna’s short-term disability claims related to obesity have increased dramatically (by 3,300 percent), in part due to the increased use of bariatric surgery.

Cigna cited American Cancer Society estimates that 1.7 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2014.Cigna said its claims data found that the biggest cancer spike over 20 years was skin cancer, which it said is now five times more prevalent than in 1993.  Cigna said programs by employers that help cancer survivors’ transition back to their jobs play a major role in enabling cancer survivors to rejoin the workforce.

Cigna said 20 years ago, depression was the third leading cause of short-term disability, while today it is the fifth leading cause, in part due to the increased use of antidepressant medications. However, Cigna said many people suffering from depression do not seek treatment “which underscores the importance of an employee assistance program to help people with behavioral health needs to access care.”

“As employers increase their focus on managing lost work time, they need to understand how disability is changing and what opportunities they may have to intervene,” said Dr. Thomas Parry, chief executive officer of the Integrated Benefits Institute. “Cigna’s analysis of 20 years of disability data helps employers think about how to approach these issues for themselves.”

For more about the study, click here.

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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