Avoiding Psychologically-Related Disability Claims

Once, disability claims were made almost exclusively when workers suffered a physical injury – a fall, car accident or heavy-lifting ailment. The injury was tangible and usually, easily treatable. It was easy to determine when the employee was able to return to work.

But nowadays, long-term disability claims are often made for psychological problems – those that are not necessarily visible, but just as painful, and having as great an impact on the ability to work, as physical injuries.

In an age of chronically long hours, excessive overtime, downsizing, toxic workplace relationships and other workplace elements harmful to the psyche, the result is that a disability claim is acquiring a whole new look.

The claim might now go like this: a worker visits the family doctor, complaining of feeling stressed. Medication might be prescribed, but it doesn’t help and he gets some counselling through the employee assistance program.

So he takes sick days or holidays. Still feeling stressed, he goes on employment insurance, which quickly runs out. He visits the family doctor and goes on short-term disability for several months.

That, too, is ineffective, so he applies for and receives long- term disability.

Disability refers to “a determination that a person is unable to fulfill their social or occupational role because they are impaired by a psychological disorder”, says Dr. Merv Gilbert, a registered psychologist and principal at Gilbert Acton LePage, a Calgary-and Vancouver-based occupational health consultancy.

And as psychological claims are thrown into the mix, the cost to companies – and individual workers – is increasing.

“There is the cost of lost productivity and lower morale as other workers fill in for the absent worker, increased prescription drug costs, increases in turnover and insurance renewal rates”, said Darrell Ert, president of Vancouver- based Employee Strategies, a division of Executive Strategies specializing in corporate life, disability insurance, and group benefits.

The most common mental-health disorder associated with disability is depression, said Gilbert, who noted depression costs Canadian business $25 billion a year in disability payments, absenteeism, and depression-related accidents and injuries.

Employees suffer too. The symptoms of psychological distress that prompted the claim, such as chronic sleeplessness, weight gain, severe anxiety, inability to concentrate and memory loss, are compounded by self- doubt, guilt and worry over not being able to work.

People usually derive a sense of identity, purpose and self esteem from their jobs. Being removed from the workplace can take a psychological toll. Claimants can feel isolated and become increasingly inactive as the claim wears on. Worse still, “the longer someone is off work the greater the probability they will not return”, observed Ert.
Employees and employers can avoid the financial and psychological costs associated with disability claims by examining their practices.

Tips for Employers
1. Keep Your Promises
Research shows employers who engage in unfair practices at work such as breaking promises, create among staff a sense of being excluded, or abandoned. When people feel tricked, diminished or humiliated they become angry, depressed, or anxious. They feel suspicious and helpless, which over time impedes performance.

Sometimes promises are broken when projects don’t come to fruition, funding doesn’t come through or business results are poor. Communicating with staff about bad news and how it affects them is important. Transparent organizations are less likely to hide poor performance or disappointing results and are more likely to act collaboratively with staff regarding setting appropriate expectations.

2. Hire, Nurture and Develop Competent Leaders
An important way to prevent or decrease psychologically related disability claims, according to Gilbert, is ensuring staff are engaged at work by supervisors and co-workers who recognize their efforts and support them.

Toxic management practices such as bullying, a lack of gratitude or an abrasive leadership style, can lead to an increase in disability claims, says Ert, who urges companies to look within and take responsibility for preventing or decreasing these claims. “Management can sometimes make excuses and engage in denial, but continually improving management style and the overall psychological health of the company by focussing on maintaining healthy workplace relationships can reduce and prevent claims.”

3. Listen to and React to the Warning Signs
High rates of sick leave, absenteeism or turnover are cited by both Ert and Gilbert as warning signs of trouble. At the organizational level, rises in medication and extended health costs, or Employee Assistance Program usage may signal a potentially toxic environment. Dr. Henry Harder, Chair of the Disability Management Program at University of Northern British Columbia, suggests that tracking short and long-term disability costs may flag a harmful environment. If these signs are occurring, managerial intervention is needed.

Increasing awareness by managers of the symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety is also important.

Once the alarm is raised, companies can identify the work place stressors over which they have control and ameliorate them. Find out the reasons for absenteeism or turnover. This may mean doing probing exit interviews with departing staff or asking workers about their job satisfaction.

If some or all of the reasons for the increased prescription drug costs or incidence of short-term disability claims or feelings of anxiety, hopelessness or helplessness are in company control – act. This may mean dealing with a toxic manager or employee, increasing staff control over their workload or obtaining psychological services for a depressed worker.

4. Prevention is Key
Companies can prevent disability claims by actively developing their leaders. Asking subordinates and colleagues for feedback about their leader, meeting with managers regularly and training supervisory staff in empathy, self-management (knowing how to choose constructive responses to stressful situations), and conflict resolution can help prevent disability claims from occurring.

Tips for Employees
1. Highlight Health
Decide to take charge of your health. Look closely at your eating, exercise and sleeping habits. Take advantage of company wellness initiatives. If you haven’t the time to look after yourself, ask why? May be you have a habit of looking after other people first?

Take a look at how you manage your time. Do you discuss workplace expectations with your supervisor? Do you delegate or tend to do it all yourself? Ask yourself why you may find it hard to talk about what you need?

2. Make A Choice
Talk to a supervisor about any changes that can be made to the work place (e.g., discuss limiting overtime if you need to or sharing your workload somehow) or find out about a transfer. If this is not possible and your job is pushing you to the limit, plan your exit. It’s a lot easier to find and land a new job while you are currently employed.

If you don’t want to quit or cannot quit, remain at the job for your own reasons. Changing your attitude about a troublesome supervisor or “letting go” of being annoyed by a co-worker’s antics may help. Some people decide to stay because they want to help other staff cope. Others plan to stay for the salary with an endpoint in mind—in nine months I’ll leave for a new job. Disability may seem like the only option but remember it has a downside. Economic hardship and lower self-esteem can result when staff stay away from work for a long time.

3. Identify Stressors
Take some time to look at circumstances that increase your sense of well-being, and situations that decrease it. What makes you content and what causes you to feel out of control? Seriously think about ways to limit feelings of being out of control at work and home.

4. Maintain A Social Life
If you have been letting friendships slide or you are dissatisfied with your social life, try to change it. Some people join a service organization while others may feel too stressed by outside obligations and learn to limit their involvement. Either way, be sure to keep up some meaningful social contact.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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