I know what it feels like to fly. As I catapulted off my mountain bike, the sense of being airborne fascinated me; the wind in my face felt incredible. But fascination quickly transformed into concern as I realized I was flying too high and for too long to have a good outcome once my body hit the ground.
I didn’t suffer any devastating injuries, but I used crutches and a cane for several months afterward. During the drive home from the emergency room, I remember calculating over and over again how I was going to pay for student loans, bills and rent if I wasn’t able to work.
My employer didn’t provide disability coverage, and my paid-time-off hours would last about six weeks. At that point, I remembered I had purchased a short-term disability policy from my professional association, as well as voluntary long-term disability coverage, right after I was hired — an unusual but fortunate set of decisions for a twenty-something.
My relief over my financial situation was momentary, however, when I contemplated how my department would run in my absence. I had recently taken on the leadership role for a startup division in a major rehabilitation hospital. The board of trustees had thrown its support behind the new initiative, and all eyes were on us to perform.
The experience I gained from my injury, coupled with lessons learned from early in my career, helped me get a feel for the balance point between concerns for employee health against the financial well-being and needs of the business. I’ve taken away three lessons that continue to show their relevance throughout my work as a consultant, speaker and writer in employee health, absence and productivity. Here they are:
1. Employees’ Lives Are Messy
My disability experience was not limited to this single anecdote. I went on to have another mountain-biking accident, plus one concussion, two stress fractures, two broken toes, three episodes of back pain, a torn MCL and an early-stage skin cancer. You may call me unlucky; I would tell you, however, that I live life off the sidelines, and so do most of you — whether you realize it or not.
You, too, could very well experience a period of disability, if you haven’t already. If it’s not an incident like mine, then a “planned disability period,” such as having a child or taking some time off of work due to migraine headaches or back pain, will likely arise at some point during your life.
2. Employee Health, Disability and Absence Impact Your Business
In 2001, the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI) released a case study indicating employees that leave work for short-term disabilities accounted for 53 percent of the dollars spent on medical care and short-term disability claim payments. For the first time in employee-benefits history, it became clear around the time of the IBI’s study that managing these absences effectively requires integrating both health care and disability as part of the same process. The study also gleaned that integration efforts should be evaluated for impact both on total benefits costs and on employee productivity.
In 2006, the IBI went on to demonstrate that lost productivity associated with an employee absence averages $22,800 per disability claim, compared with $13,600 in medical costs and $3,800 in disability.
3. Disability Insurance Plays a Critical Role in Employees’ Financial Well-Being
For all my periods of disability, I’ve missed exactly one day of work, but I’m a fortunate example. I’ve mainly worked in sedentary occupations for employers who trusted my ability to work remotely or accommodated my temporary restrictions. Know that you and I should have disability insurance, and so should your employees. As an employer, you don’t even have to pay for it. Simply allow a trusted insurance carrier to talk with your workers about voluntary coverage.
We know that we will probably experience some episode of disability, and we have to be able to afford it. Many employees, however, can’t afford it right now. Case in point is the number of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. The Corporation for Enterprise Development reported that 44 percent of Americans are living with less than $5,887 in savings for a family of four. Furthermore, because 56 percent of Americans currently have subprime credit, Time’s Christopher Matthews wrote: ” … if emergencies arise, many Americans are forced to resort to high-interest debt from credit cards or payday loans.”
Forget the statistics, though, and learn from my flight through the air. If you’re not already, make sure you do something to protect yourself, as well as your employees.
Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trend spotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. She is also the president of the Council for Disability Awareness. You may follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.