Winter Wellness Woes: A Flurry of Disability Claims

Surviving the season of stress, storms and sniffles

By Stephen Miller Dec 22, 2009

Winter is a wonderland for disabling illnesses and accidents. Claims attributable to depression, respiratory illnesses and fractures jump in January but not before a spike in good cheer and dip in claims around the holidays, according to an analysis of short-term disability claims by The Hartford Financial Services Group, a provider of group disability insurance.

“We are warning workers about wintertime wellness risks and urging them to take steps now to protect their health and their wealth,” says Glenn Shapiro, vice president of claims for The Hartford’s Group Benefits Division. “In today’s tough economy, a disability that lasts even a couple weeks could be a financial hardship for many Americans.”

Beating the Blues

The Hartford’s analysis of more than one million short-term disability claims over the past five years found that claims were at their lowest level overall in November and December. Then the new year brings a flurry of disability claims related to depression.

“The holiday season can be a stressful time of year. But studies show that most Americans are happy when they’re celebrating with family and friends,” Shapiro says. “Our claims records back that up. Depression claims drop to their lowest point in December and then climb in January.”

Nothing to Sneeze At

Not only are workers trying to beat the blues in the dead of winter, they also are struggling with sniffles and sneezes. Claims due to respiratory illnesses tend to soar in January and peak in February. “Everyone knows wintertime is cold-and-flu season. But our research shows respiratory illnesses are not to be taken lightly. They keep many workers off the job, making this a major concern for the financial health of businesses, too,” Shapiro says.

Disability Dangers

Overall, accident-related disability claims peak in the summertime. However, there’s another secondary spike in January of accident-related claims for workers in the Northeast and Midwest.

“Inclement weather is a key factor that makes these two regions disability danger zones during the winter,” Shapiro says. “Basic safety precautions can help prevent most of the accidents and injuries that can happen. We encourage residents in these two regions to exercise extreme caution while traveling during storms and use the appropriate protective gear for winter sports at all times, such as wearing a helmet when skiing.”

Wintertime 911 Tips

Employers can lend a helping hand in keeping their workers happy and healthy. Shapiro recommends these steps:

Don’t let stress drain employees' productivity. Encourage workers to stay active even during this frigid time of year and to make use of an employee assistance program (EAP), if available.

Avoid confusion about absences. Ensure that your team is familiar with key company policies on topics such as storm closings and telecommuting.

Get ready. Arm your workforce with information about disability benefits, just in case they experience a disabling injury or illness this winter. Employers can also prepare by having plans to accommodate recuperating workers. (The Hartford's web site provides several return-to-work tips.)

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

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