The prolonged impact of COVID-19 on productivity and disability benefits
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease was seen largely as a short-term illness with survivors seeming to recover fairly quickly. However, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), local and global experience is showing that COVID-19 can also result in prolonged illness for some survivors.
Elna Van Wyk, National Head of Disability Management and Technical Underwriting at Momentum Corporate, says that while much is still unknown about the clinical course of COVID-19, the prolonged impact on certain patients, now referred to as “long haulers”, has implications for workplace productivity as well as the management of employee disability claims.
There is a growing number of reports that a fair percentage of COVID-19 sufferers do not regain their previous health following the disease, with prolonged symptoms lasting up to 6 months, says Van Wyk. The WHO indicates that this even applies to young adults without underlying chronic medical conditions. Among those aged 18 to 34 years in good health, 20% (1 in 5) reported prolonged symptoms.
She adds that according to the WHO, symptoms that may linger for months following the disease include fatigue, cough, congestion and shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, headaches and body aches, diarrhea and nausea, chest or abdominal pain and confusion.
Van Wyk points out that these symptoms, depending on their severity, certainly have the potential to impact negatively on an employee’s ability to perform their job effectively.
She also believes that the symptoms of prolonged COVID-19 may be confused with mental illness disorders like depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may complicate an accurate diagnosis and, if symptoms are so severe that the individual applies for income disability benefits, may complicate the claims assessment process.
“Up until now, we have not seen a rise in disability claims due to the prolonged impact of COVID-19 on employees’ health. However we do expect claims to rise in the future due to a number of COVID-19 related factors,” says Van Wyk.
Why disability claims are likely to rise in the future
“Many people have been avoiding healthcare visits due to fear of contracting the virus, and have not been receiving the care they need during lockdown. As a result, their health may deteriorate, in particular in the case of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. We have also seen later diagnosis of conditions like depression and cancer, which will impact on the prognosis and treatment required,” says Van Wyk.
These factors will all impact on employees’ state of health and their ability to remain productive members of the workforce, as well as the number and duration of disability claims.
“Momentum Corporate’s claims experience shows a correlation between a weak economy and high income disability claims. The financial pressures of potential retrenchment, static or reduced salaries and the unavailability of jobs in a stagnant economy are already taking their toll on employees’ physical and mental health,” says Van Wyk.
Remote working is also having an impact on physical and mental health. “Musculoskeletal-related claims are already one of the top 3 claim causes according to our claims experience. These claims may well rise in the future due to the poor ergonomics of home-based offices. Furthermore, feelings of isolation and lack of connection that can accompany remote working, coupled with financial stressors, are expected to fuel mental health claims, which are already on average 9% of all disability claims received by Momentum Corporate,” says Van Wyk.
Review disability benefits structures
A rise in the number and duration of claims will mean that disability benefits become more expensive and, in some cases, unaffordable for employees based on the current structure of benefits. She urges employers to review the cost and disability benefit structure to make sure that it is the best use of employees’ money. “A better option may be to consider a lower benefit structure that is fairer to all employees, like a scaled benefit structure. Although benefits may be slightly lower, the cost saving would increase employees’ contribution towards retirement savings or take-home pay,” says Van Wyk.
Return to work
While a speedy and successful return to work minimises workplace disruption and is good for productivity, Van Wyk cautions that employees returning to work after a COVID-19 absence, potentially suffering from prolonged symptoms, or after a disability-related absence, are likely to require additional support to facilitate their successful reintegration.
She shares a few tips to manage a successful return:
Establish whether or not the employee is fit enough to perform all duties.
Negotiate a phased return to work, giving the employee time to adjust and build strength.
Find out if the employee is still taking medication and its potential side effects.
Agree with the employee what support will be available during their initial return.
Arrange for a colleague to act as their "buddy”, helping the employee with any difficulties in the first few weeks.
Monitor the situation closely for the initial period to make sure the employee is coping.
Van Wyk also suggests that if the employee is returning following a period of absence due to disability, find out what services the company’s disability insurance provider offers to help insured employees return from a disability and successfully integrate back into the workplace.