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Industry-specific and demographic disability income claims data can give employers a way to benchmark their own disability experience.

Looking at claims patterns also can give you, the benefits professional, a better understanding of a potential client’s benefits needs before you even pick up the phone to make an appointment with the benefits manager. You can use claims patterns to suggest programs that can address the medical conditions and disabilities most commonly affecting the client’s workers.

Because the 10% of the employees who are out on disability leave in any given year typically account for about 50% of the employees’ medical expenditures, these suggestions can have a noticeable impact on employee health, employee productivity and the employer’s bottom line.

MetLife has found, for example, that businesses with call center operations are likely to face particular challenges: Although call center employees may represent only 20% to 25% of a company’s full-time employees, they may account for more than 60% of its total short-term disability claims and family and medical leave absences.

Workers at many call center operations experience high levels of stress. As a result, call center employees may be particularly prone to accidents, workplace injuries, and musculoskeletal and psychiatric disabilities, which ultimately can lead to an elevated number of absences and disability claims.

The good news is that giving call center managers a better understanding of these trends can help lead to small investments that produce significant increases in an employer’s ability to keep workers active at work.

Solutions can be as simple as investing in employee assistance programs or improving prescription drug plan coverage for medications that can improve employee health and productivity.

A Tale Of Demographics

Just as industry-specific data can tell one story about an employer, workforce demographics also can tell a story.

Companies, for example, that have older employees can expect to see a higher incidence of disability claims.

Figures from the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Ill., show that 60-year-old men submit 50% more short-term disability claims than 30-year-old men.

The proportion of 60-year-olds in the workforce is increasing as the population ages. That shift could affect employers in many ways: The arthritis claims rate may double in the next 15 years, and employers may have to reevaluate job responsibilities, workplace accommodations and onsite tools. The earlier employers plan for–and implement–these workplace solutions the better off they and their employees are likely to be.

Companies that employ large numbers of young women may need medical plan designs that focus on issues such as prenatal care and breast cancer awareness.

Companies with a larger proportion of young male employees may need programs that address young men’s tendency to avoid interactions with the medical community until well into middle age, when serious conditions may be more advanced.

Once employers and their benefits advisors use the data to determine targeted wellness and prevention programs, the success of programs will lie in the execution.

Employer enthusiasm is at least as important in efforts to increase employee participation in wellness programs as it is in efforts to increase participation in voluntary benefit plans.

A company facing rising obesity rates might, for example, set up a worksite gym or offer discounts on memberships at community gyms. Managers also could lead by example, by discussing the benefits of gym membership and actively attending a gym themselves.

It stands to reason that creating an encouraging atmosphere may do more to get employees to exercise than simply distributing gym brochures.

Ronald S. Leopold, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H., is vice president and national medical director for MetLife Disability, a unit of MetLife, New York. He can be reached at rleopold@metlife.com.