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Out of Joint: Aching Backs, Worn-Out Knees Keep Many Off the Job

By Stephen Miller  6/1/2010
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Every day Americans rely on their bones and muscles for the strength, energy and mobility to help them get their jobs done. But research by The Hartford Financial Services Group, a provider of group disability insurance, shows that workers’ frameworks are showing wear and tear.

Nearly one in four U.S. employees on a short-term disability (STD) claim were unable to work because of a disabling illness impacting their skeleton or muscles—specifically backs, knees and feet—according to an analysis of nearly 750,000 STD claims received by The Hartford.

The insurer's analysis of musculoskeletal claims found that:

Employees who were age 50 and older accounted for 40 percent of back and spine claims.

Men had more claims because of back and spine disabilities than women, 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Ankle and foot conditions, such as bunions and hammertoes, were more common among women than men.

One in four claims was attributable to worn-out spinal discs.

One in five claims was attributable to knee problems related to arthritis or worn-out cartilage.

“Many of us have had an aching back or stiff joints at some point in our lives,” said Ron Gendreau, executive vice president of The Hartford’s group benefits division. “These wear-and-tear claims reflect the trend of the aging of the American workforce.”

Financial Setback

The average length of time that an employee was out of work because of a musculoskeletal disorder is approximately 10 weeks, according to The Hartford’s claims analysis. “That time takes into account the medical treatment of a disabling illness, including surgery, as well as recovery,” Gendreau explained. “Many families would be financially debilitated if they went without a source of income for 10 weeks.”

Gendreau encouraged communicating these tips to employees on how they can protect themselves from disabling injuries:

Do research. Employees can calculate their chance of becoming disabled—their personal disability quotient (PDQ)—by visiting

Protect your core. An emergency savings fund, equivalent to three to six months of income, can help employees weather financial storms.

Bone up on your benefits. Remind employees to ask HR if their benefits package has an employee assistance program that offers emotional, legal and financial support, as well as disability insurance that will help them get back to work after a disability.

In addition, Gendreau gave these tips on how employers can help protect the backbone of their business:

Encourage sedentary workers to take breaks, stand up and walk. Sitting for long periods of time strains the lower back, which could exacerbate a condition.

Hold a health fair featuring fitness and wellness vendors, such as a dietician.

Publicize fitness events in your community, such as a charity walk.

Promote the use of a nurse help line. Nurses as a first point of contact can tackle tough medical situations and help facilitate workers’ safe return to the workplace, Gendreau advised.

Stephen Miller is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

A Coordinated Approach to Disability Management, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, April 2010

Gauging—and Improving—Employees’ Short-Term Disability Experience, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, July 2008

Integrating Health and Productivity Management, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, May 2008

Return-to-Work/Stay-at-Work Programs: Reduce Lost Time, Boost Productivity, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, March 2008

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