Elna Van Wyk, National Head of Disability Management and Technical Underwriting at Momentum Corporate
The prolonged impact of COVID-19 on productivity and disability benefits. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease was seen largely as a short-term illness with survivors seeming to recover fairly quickly. However, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), local and global experience is showing that COVID-19 can also result in prolonged illness for some survivors.
While much is still unknown about the clinical course of COVID-19, the prolonged impact on certain patients, now referred to as “long haulers”, has implications for workplace productivity as well as the management of employee disability claims.
There is a growing number of reports that a fair percentage of COVID-19 sufferers do not regain their previous health following the disease, with prolonged symptoms lasting up to 6 months. The WHO indicates that this even applies to young adults without underlying chronic medical conditions. Among those aged 18 to 34 years in good health, 20% (1 in 5) reported prolonged symptoms.
According to the WHO, symptoms that may linger for months following the disease include fatigue, cough, congestion and shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, headaches and body aches, diarrhea and nausea, chest or abdominal pain and confusion.
These symptoms, depending on their severity, certainly have the potential to impact negatively on an employee’s ability to perform their job effectively. I also believe that the symptoms of prolonged COVID-19 may be confused with mental illness disorders like depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may complicate an accurate diagnosis and, if symptoms are so severe that the individual applies for income disability benefits, may complicate the claims assessment process.
Up until now, we have not seen a rise in disability claims due to the prolonged impact of COVID-19 of employees’ health. However we do expect claims to
rise in the future due to a number of COVID-19 related factors.
WHY DISABILITY CLAIMS ARE LIKELY TO RISE IN THE FUTURE
Many people have been avoiding healthcare visits due to fear of contracting the virus, and have not been receiving the care they need during lockdown.
As a result, their health may deteriorate, in particular in the case of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. We have also seen later diagnosis of conditions like depression and cancer, which will impact on the prognosis and treatment required.
These factors will all impact on employees’ state of health and their ability to remain, productive members, of the workforce, as well as the number and duration of disability claims.
Momentum Corporate’s claims experience shows a correlation between a weak economy and high income disability claims. The financial pressures of potential
retrenchment, static or reduced salaries and the unavailability of jobs in a stagnant economy are already taking their toll on employees’ physical and mental health.
Remote working is also having an impact on physical and mental health. Musculoskeletal-related claims are already one of the top 3 claim causes according to our claims experience. These claims may well arise in the future due to the poor ergonomics of home-based offices. Furthermore, feelings of isolation and lack of connection that can accompany remote working, coupled with financial stressors are expected to fuel mental health claims, which are already on average 9% of all disability claims received by Momentum Corporate.
REVIEW DISABILITY BENEFITS STRUCTURES
A rise in the number and duration of claims will mean that disability benefits become more expensive and, in some cases, unaffordable for employees based on the current structure of benefits. She urges employers to review the cost and disability benefit structure to make sure that it is the best use of employees’ money. A better option may be to consider a lower benefit structure that is fairer to all employees, like a scaled benefit structure. Although benefits may be slightly lower, the cost saving would increase employees’ contribution towards retirement
savings or take-home pay.
RETURN TO WORK
While a speedy and successful return to work minimises workplace disruption and is good for productivity, employees returning to work after a COVID-19 absence, potentially suffering from prolonged symptoms, or after a disability-related absence, are likely to require additional support to facilitate their successful reintegration.
HEREWITH A FEW TIPS TO MANAGE A SUCCESSFUL RETURN:
- Establish whether or not the employee is fit enough to perform all duties.
- Negotiate a phased return to work, giving the employee time to adjust and build strength.
- Find out if the employee is still taking medication and its potential side effects.
- Agree with the employee what support will be available during their initial return.
- Arrange for a colleague to act as their “buddy”, helping the employee with any difficulties in the first few weeks.
- Monitor the situation closely for the initial period to make sure the employee is coping.
I suggest that if the employee is returning following a period of absence due to disability, find out what services the company’s disability insurance provider offers to help insured employees return from a disability and successfully integrate back into the workplace
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Momentum Investments is part of Momentum Metropolitan Life Limited, an authorised financial services (FSP6406) and registered credit (NCRCP173) provider.