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Misconceptions About Age and Work Absence Challenged

Workers age 55 and older represent a minority of disability-leave claims

Although it may generally be believed that older workers take more—and longer—leaves of absence for health conditions, this is not the case, according to a new report, Lost Work Time and Older Workers, by the Integrated Benefits Institute, a nonprofit research organization.

The researchers used data on lost-time benefits from the institute's health and productivity benchmarking program, reflecting the experiences of 52,000 U.S. employers. They analyzed claims for short-term disability (STD), long-term disability (LTD), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave and workers’ compensation (WC), and examined how age affects the reasons for work absence and the amount of time lost associated with them.

“As the workforce ages, employers looking to maximize the value of their workforce and to make proper investments in employee health need to more fully understand how age fits into the health and productivity equation,” said Brian Gifford, the institute's senior research associate, in an interview with SHRM Online.

Common Misperceptions

According to the report, a common myth about older workers is that they represent a majority of workplace-absence claims. However, the study revealed that even when excluding pregnancy and child-bonding claims, older workers (those 55 and over) do not account for most absence claims. Older workers are responsible for between 23 percent and 42 percent of FMLA, STD and LTD claims, and only 17 percent of WC claims.

Among other study findings:

  • Depression. Younger workers lose more STD time for depression and anxiety.
  • Sprains and fractures. Younger workers also lose more STD time for sprains and fractures. Sprains account for about half of all WC temporary total-disability lost workdays, regardless of the claimant’s age. The types of work-related sprains differ by age, however, with older employees more likely to lose work time because of job-related shoulder sprains, while workers under age 55 are more apt to lose time because of back/neck sprains. Fractures account for more WC lost workdays for individuals 55 and older.
  • Back pain. Low back pain takes a similar productivity toll on STD claimants of all ages.

Older Workers' Absences

Although older workers represent a minority of overall absence claims, when they do have an STD, WC or FMLA claim, they tend to be absent from work longer than young or prime-age workers (35 to 54), the report shows.

Older STD claimants are also more likely to transition into LTD and, perhaps, out of the workforce entirely. On the other hand, prime-age workers have the highest LTD claim costs.

Cancer claims generate the greatest proportion of STD lost workdays among older workers but relatively few lost workdays among young workers (ages 18-34). In addition, osteoarthrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary heart disease are the causes of a relatively large number of STD days among workers 55 and older. Similar patterns apply to LTD claims.

“Employers can make better decisions about how to structure their health-promotion, absence-management, and return-to-work and disability benefits if they understand the productivity impacts of disability absences in their workforce,” advised Integrated Benefits Institute President Thomas Parry. “Understanding how age factors into disability-related lost productivity is a key component. The findings point to the advantage of targeted disease-management strategies according to the age profile of the workforce.”

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​


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