The role of work
If we accept that economic stability, the environment, and the social context are important social determinants of health, how do we incorporate this understanding into our management of Disability claims?
One significant activity that overlaps in all these areas, is work. Work is a central part of our lives. It is something we do almost every day, for much of the day, for decades on end. Recent estimates note that the average person will spend roughly 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime, one-third of their life!7
Compelling international evidence shows that in most circumstances, work is beneficial to people’s health and wellbeing.8 In addition to the salary earned, work gives us meaning and purpose, a way of structuring and occupying our time, physical and mental activity, opportunities to develop and use our skills, a sense of identity and personal achievement, social contact and support, and hopefully a feeling of accomplishment.
Conversely, people who are not in work have poorer physical and mental health overall, consult their doctors more frequently, are more likely to be admitted to hospital and have higher death rates. Some studies even go so far as to conclude that the risk to health of being out of work, in the long term, is greater than that of other major diseases such as heart disease. Therefore, many experts now recommend staying in work or returning to work as soon as reasonable following absence.
By taking a closer look at how work influences the social determinants of health, we can better understand the non-medical factors driving Disability claims and use this understanding to support claimants in returning to work.
The cost-of-living crisis seen in many regions around the world is impacting health and wellbeing, reinforcing the importance of economic stability. LifeSearch’s latest Health Wealth & Happiness Index, a UK survey commissioned with the Centre for Economics and Business Research, found that mental, financial, and physical health in 2023 deteriorated close to the “record low” levels recorded during the height of the COVID‑19 pandemic three years ago.
The index observed that almost one third (32 %) of British people experienced worsened mental health and wellbeing in the last year, with the cost of living crisis attributed as the biggest cause (44 %).9 In August 2023, the Inequalities in Health Alliance, convened by the Royal College of Physicians, published the results of polling commissioned from YouGov showing that of those who reported their health getting worse, 84 % said it was due to increased heating costs, over three quarters (78 %) said it was the result of the rising cost of food, and almost half (46 %) due to transport costs rising.10
Economic stability improves health, but barriers include lack of availability of work, childcare, career counselling, work flexibility, and availability of reasonable workplace accommodations.11 While insurers cannot directly impact broader economic conditions, we provide valuable services that contribute to economic stability. These include the financial protection itself, as well as services offered through claims management, such as vocational rehabilitation, wellbeing programmes, and recommendations around reasonable accommodations, to name a few.
Neighbourhood and built environment
While this category includes an individual’s residential neighbourhood and home conditions, given the amount of time spent at work, as well as the activities performed there, the physical work environment cannot be overlooked. Because people spend so much time working, their work environment has a major impact on their health. There have been situations where people develop hearing loss, skin diseases, or lung problems from exposure to risks at work, and musculoskeletal injuries remain a significant cause of claim in manual occupations.
While significant improvements in workplace health and safety have been implemented in the last 150 years, there is more that can be done. Interventions tailored to certain industries – such as efforts to prevent falls in the construction industry – can and have helped reduce work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths. Almost every industry has seen significant changes due to new technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence. Employers can help improve people’s health and wellbeing by offering wellness programmes to promote wellbeing and prevent health concerns before they occur.12 Here insurers have valuable expertise to offer.
One significant recent change to work environments is the rise in remote working. In 2021, nearly three times more people were working in remote positions than in 2019.13 It is perhaps too early to judge, but some sources suggest this change may have a positive impact on health and wellbeing as individuals benefit from the flexibility and easier work-life balance. One survey in the UK found that workplace sickness absence recordings declined for the fourth year in 2023 alongside the growth in hybrid working.14
Social and community context
While physical injuries and illnesses may be decreasing, there is much discussion about the impact of work on our mental health. The social and community context is a term that refers to the settings and relationships in which people live and work, and how they affect their health and wellbeing. People’s relationships and interactions with co‑workers can have a major impact on their sense of cohesion and connectedness, which in turn impacts their health and wellbeing. The impact of workplace culture, communication, and discrimination, cannot be underestimated.15
Therefore, a thorough understanding of the insured’s workplace culture, wellness policies, and relationships is an important part of robust Disability claims management. In many cases, embitterment following conflict or perceived injustice in the workplace can present a bigger barrier to a successful return to work than the medical condition itself.
How to address the social determinants of health?
Claims professionals have little influence on the broader macro-environment, but we can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to work, by preventing long-term absences and by supporting a return to work with comprehensive claims management after a absence.
If we accept that disability is impacted by the various social determinants of health, and we acknowledge that work is a significant source of these determinants, then it follows that robust and holistic claims management cannot focus on medical treatment alone. In many claims, it may be useful to incorporate non-medical strategies to complement traditional medical care and rehabilitation. Consider the following tools and resources:
Wellness starts before claim
The area of employee wellness has attracted more and more research over the past years. According to Deloitte, “as the line between work and life blurs, providing a robust suite of wellbeing programmes focused on physical, mental, financial, and spiritual health is becoming a corporate responsibility and a strategy to drive employee productivity, engagement, and retention.”16
According to Group Risk Development (GRiD), of the four key pillars of wellbeing – mental, financial, physical, and social – mental wellbeing is the number one priority that employees believe their employer should be responsible for supporting, with half (49 %) of employees choosing this over the other areas of wellbeing.17
Employers often turn to their insurers for advice and support regarding employee wellness. Where possible, insurers should look to support wellness programmes for both individuals and employers. This can take many forms, with common examples including wellness apps, employee assistance programmes, mental health counselling, and health monitoring and reward programmes.
The benefits of successful wellness programmes are multi-faceted. When wellness is prioritised, this results in a win-win-win outcome for the employee, employer, and insurer.
Understand the work related factors contributing to the claim
Best practice in Disability claims does not focus on medical information alone but includes an in‑depth understanding of the impact of the SDOH. While the ability to work is generally acknowledged to be a significant contributor to good health, risk factors at work are frequently cited as key precipitating and perpetuating factors for health problems.
Therefore, understanding and, where appropriate, addressing occupational factors is fundamental for robust claims management. Understanding the specifics of the insured’s occupation is paramount. The following factors are generally considered high risk:
- Jobs with inherently dangerous duties (e. g. oil rig workers, repetitive manual work)
- Jobs with high social and ethical responsibility (e. g. medical and welfare workers)
- Exposure to violence, trauma or abuse at work (e. g. healthcare professionals, police, military)
- Being self‑employed
- Employers with poor regard for employee wellness or negative workplace culture
- Work that is unpleasant or with low job satisfaction
- Work perceived as stressful – this is the most important
If a claim does occur, a thorough occupational and financial assessment is required. Work is far more than a job title, and a proper occupational assessment goes deeper than simply asking for a job title. It is crucial to understand the occupational demands of the job, as well as the physical and social environment of the workplace.
The level of detail required as part of the occupational assessment will depend on several factors, including the nature of the diagnosis and the expected duration of the claim, as well as the occupation itself. For example, if the insured has suffered a devastating accident and is currently incapacitated in hospital, it may be excessive and not fair treatment to the insured to insist on an in‑depth occupational analysis prior to deciding claim validity. On the other hand, if the insured is claiming for a more minor or subjective condition, a detailed analysis of the occupation may be vital. A good example is knee pain, which might not impair an accountant who can perform most of their duties while sitting but may be significant for a hairdresser who is required to stand for most of the day.
Consider reasonable workplace accommodations
The majority of absences are short-lived and most individuals return to work.18 A 2022 analysis of data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics noted that more than 26 % of people in the UK with long-term illness want to return to work.19 The article goes on to note that helping these individuals return to work will help the economy and assist employers with the staffing shortages they are currently experiencing.
Figure 2 – Accommodations for return-to-work or stay-at work