From the November 2010 issue of Benefits Selling Magazine •Subscribe!

Disability coverage protects job one

If you won the lottery, would you still work? Although many people might fantasize about tropical beaches and living a luxurious life of leisure, a recent survey from Yankelovich found that most American workers - 63 percent - "live to work," including 18 percent who said they love their job so much they would continue working even if they won the lottery.

Of course, not everyone feels that way. The survey also showed 36 percent "work to live," including people who say they work primarily for the paycheck or benefits, or feel stuck because of a bad economy.

Whether you count yourself among those who live to work or work to live, most people would agree it's a good idea to protect one's most important asset - the ability to earn a living. In fact, 86 percent of the workers Yankelovich surveyed said they know there are steps to protect themselves against a work-stopping injury or illness.

And yet, just one-third (36 percent) of them said they have taken action to prepare for that possibility. Of those, about half (51 percent) said they saved more money, compared to just 32 percent who said they purchased new or additional disability insurance. Eighteen percent said they tried to be healthier or stayed well, and 6 percent said they tried to be safer or avoided getting hurt.

Savings, staying well not enough
While saving money for the proverbial rainy day is wise, a family's savings might be depleted quickly if the wage-earner suddenly could not work because of a disabling illness or injury. And while trying to stay healthy and avoiding injury are certainly prudent, things in life are unexpected, no matter how careful you are.

Some workers receive paid sick days as part of their benefits package, and sometimes accumulated sick time isn't enough. Disability insurance can help protect disabled workers by replacing a portion their income while they're sidelined.

Look back to move forward
The ability to earn a living is a worker's most important asset and the stress associated with this responsibility can be overwhelming. A year ago, in a similar Yankelovich survey of American workers, people said they would feel economically vulnerable if they were out of work due to illness or injury. Sixty-two percent said their top worry would be their inability to pay the mortgage or household bills during a lengthy absence.

With nearly eight in 10 American workers living paycheck to paycheck, this should come as no surprise. Especially when you consider that personal illness and disability are leading reasons for personal bankruptcies in the United States.

According to the 2009 survey, most workers who had been out of work for an extended period due to illness or injury at some point in their career said they felt worried, afraid, anxious, depressed or unproductive. Others said they felt guilty because their absence was a burden to others, or they felt vulnerable or isolated.

What can employers do?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of chronic illnesses are preventable or reversible. Also, research has shown there is a very strong correlation between emotional well-being and physical health. When people are depressed, stressed, distracted or anxious, they are more likely to suffer a disabling injury or illness, so it's important for employers and workers to understand ways to strike a healthy work/life balance. Prevention and wellness can lead the way.

But there's a gap between having access and knowing programs are available. In this year's Yankelovich survey, most workers didn't readily make the connection between health and disability. Only 12 percent of workers identified workplace wellness programs as a way to help them prepare for the possibility of a disabling illness or disease and just 9 percent cited employee assistance programs. Clearly, workers need to better understand that taking care of their health - both physical and emotional - is one of the best ways to avoid a disabling illness or injury.

Employers can gauge the health profile of their employee population by having workers complete a confidential health assessment. Based on the results, an employer could offer wellness programs that best match the health risks of its employees. These programs could include, for example, coaching programs for tobacco cessation, stress or weight loss management.

Employers should look for health and disability plans that emphasize prevention and wellness and get employees active and engaged in programs - using incentives and communications to keep employees motivated and informed about the importance of utilizing these programs. The best way to gauge the success of a program is by understanding program participation and completion rates. See which programs helped employees not only change unhealthy behaviors, but also sustained those changes.

Make it easy, educate employees
Employers that don't already offer disability insurance should consider adding this important protection to their benefits package, and they should make it as easy as possible for employees to enroll. When Yankelovich studied awareness of and attitudes toward disability insurance in 2009, more people said they would rely on their employer for advice about it than any other source - more than a financial professional, their spouse or the Internet. What's more, they said they appreciated the convenience and cost effectiveness of getting the insurance through an employer.

Employers typically have several options, including short-term and long-term coverage. They can pay all or part of the premium, or they can opt for a voluntary program in which employees pay the entire premium themselves. No matter how the employer structures the coverage, employees benefit from discounted premiums that are available through employer-sponsored plans and the convenience of a payroll deduction to pay premium costs.

Simply offering coverage isn't the end, though. Employers should educate their employees about the value and importance of disability coverage -- not just during enrollment season but throughout the year. Just as motivation is essential to effective health and wellness program participation, disability insurance education also needs reinforcement. "Lunch and learn" gatherings, newsletter articles and the company's Intranet are all good ways to reach employees to drive home the importance of protecting their income. The more times people hear the message, the more likely they will understand and take action. The worst time for an employee to understand the importance of disability coverage is after a disability occurs.

Pay attention
Beyond offering disability insurance to employees, employers should pay attention to management of family medical leave, and be aware that these leaves can often be a precursor to a disability. CIGNA has found that individuals on family medical leave are five times more likely to have a short-term disability claim. Those workers on family medical leave for family issues are 50 percent more likely to develop a disabling behavioral health issue. Early intervention and support for the emotional and physical needs of employees out on family medical leave can help them get back to work - and to their paycheck - sooner.

Returning to work
Finally, not all disability insurance plans are created equal. It's important for employers to choose a plan that includes a proven program that can help workers prepare for a safe return to work while they recover from their illness or injury. Programs that help people get back to work as soon as it's safe not only help restore financial health, they also provide an important emotional boost.

These programs also might offer dedicated vocational rehabilitation counselors who can work with disabled employees to develop personalized plans for partial return to work, special accommodations, alternative work arrangements, or even a transition to a new job. Disability carriers with established programs can readily provide their return-to-work rates and disability durations.

The Yankelovich survey shows that most workers live to work. Wellness programs help them stay healthy so they can work, while disability insurance helps protect their livelihood when they can't. And a well-designed return to work program helps them get back safely to where they want to be.

Page 1 of 3

Advertisement. Closing in 15 seconds.