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Your Insureds Pay When Employees Sing the Blues

December 2008 Standard Publishing Update
The Editors of Standard Publishing
The days are short, the winter’s long, and, let’s face it, the bleak state of the economy isn’t helping anyone’s mood. Winter is typically depression’s “busy season,” and with the added burden of financial fears, the effect is likely to be even more pronounced this year. In fact, it appears that your commercial insureds’ employees may already be facing the consequences of a stressful year. In November, Aetna reported that there was a 60 percent increase between 2007 and 2008 in employees seeking help for stress from the insurer’s employee assistance program (EAP) and a 55 percent increase in those seeking financial assistance.
The days are short, the winter’s long, and, let’s face it, the bleak state of the economy isn’t helping anyone’s mood. Winter is typically depression’s “busy season,” and with the added burden of financial fears, the effect is likely to be even more pronounced this year. In fact, it appears that your commercial insureds’ employees may already be facing the consequences of a stressful year. In November, Aetna reported that there was a 60 percent increase between 2007 and 2008 in employees seeking help for stress from the insurer’s employee assistance program (EAP) and a 55 percent increase in those seeking financial assistance.

Depression is, or should be, a major concern for employers and their insurers and agents. According to The Wall Street Journal, depression was the cause of 18 percent of employee absences lasting 10 or more days. And, in October 2007, The Los Angeles Times reported that depression accounted for 387 million sick days a year in the United States.

In addition to absenteeism, depression is also a major cause of presenteeism – depressed workers are typically significantly less productive, costing American companies millions of dollars per year. The effect of depression on workers compensation claims can also be costly. In most cases, workers compensation would not cover depression, even if conditions in the workplace (like a stressful job or nasty coworkers) contribute to the problem. However, depression can increase the risk of workplace injuries. The inability to concentrate, memory problems, and fatigue are all common symptoms of depression, any one of which could be a safety hazard. If an employee is working with dangerous equipment or shingling a roof or cutting down trees, you want him or her to be able to focus. Even a flight of stairs can be hazardous to somebody who can’t concentrate.

On the flip side, it’s fairly common to become depressed after a serious workplace injury, which can also increase your insureds’ workers compensation costs. A depressed worker can take longer to heal, leading to higher medical costs and more time away from work. In some cases, depression can lead injured workers to abuse prescription painkillers or alcohol, slowing recovery, but also creating an entirely new problem that needs to be addressed.

The good news is that depression is treatable, but your insureds need to learn how to spot it in order to get workers the help that they need. Obviously, there’s no way to tell what an employee is thinking or feeling, but there are usually some physical manifestations of depression. An inability to concentrate could result in an employee making more mistakes than usual. Depressed employees may sleep late or call in sick often. They might lose or gain weight. They may also be more irritable than usual, overreacting to small problems. Frequent headaches and nausea can also be a sign of depression.

Of course, we all have days or weeks when we’re sleepier or grumpier than usual, so employers may find it difficult to determine when to reach out to an employee. A good start is establishing a workplace culture where depression is not stigmatized. Employees should feel comfortable asking for help or taking time off to seek help on their own. EAPs, when available, have been shown to be effective in reducing the duration of disability claims.

Businesses should stay in touch with their employees on disability leave and make sure that the employees know they can get the help that they need. If an employee is taking longer than expected to recover from an injury or if an unusual number or strength of narcotics has been prescribed, it may be a sign that intervention is needed.

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