Disability coverage at work declining: Poll

Trend could mean more unproductive or absent workers

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The number of Canadians with disability coverage through workplace benefits has declined significantly since 2015, according to an RBC Insurance survey.

Fewer than half (48 per cent) of workers said they have this kind of coverage through their workplace — compared to 57 per cent in 2015.

“The landscape for employers is changing in Canada, and what we’re seeing is that you have smaller organizations, startups, becoming more frequent, so if organizations are smaller, most often they can’t actually afford to offer their employees group benefits solutions right out of the gate,” said Maria Winslow, senior director of life and health at RBC Insurance in Mississauga, Ont.

“In addition to that, we have more part-time and contract workers in even larger organizations, and even when a larger organization offers group benefits solutions, part-time and contract workers sometimes aren’t eligible for those solutions. And then we’re seeing a rise in the freelance and self-employment sectors.”

The results are not surprising, said Roger Hodkinson, CEO and medical director of Western Medical Assessments in Edmonton, citing the coming together of two “unfortunate realities.”

“(It’s about) the declining participation of businesses in benefits and, simultaneously, to compound the problem, significant reduced access to specialized services in the health-care system,” he said. “In an environment that’s increasingly competitive, especially given the many advantages many American companies have now, and the stagnation of the Canadian economy, it’s a natural reaction for businesses to try to cut costs — as unfortunate as that is.”

Workers aren’t accessing disability insurance coverage because their workplace doesn’t offer group benefits or disability insurance (35 per cent) or they feel they can’t afford it (26 per cent), found RBC’s survey of 1,505 employees.

Serious implications

But more than two-thirds (68 per cent) know there could be serious financial implications, both for them and their family, if they were to become disabled and are unable to work for three months.

“So much is impacted when you become disabled, your world gets turned upside down — the last thing you want to worry about is finances,” said Winslow, citing mental illness, cancer and musculoskeletal disorders as the most common disability claims.

At some point during their career, one in three Canadians are prone to becoming disabled either because they’ve become injured or they succumb to an illness that prevents them from going to work, she said. And that can include people working at a desk job, not just those in high-risk occupations.

“A disability can happen anytime and really turns a family’s world upside down when you can’t work and you lose that income coming in. Because your expenses, unfortunately, they stay the same — or they might even increase when you’re disabled because you might need care,” said Winslow.

Forced back to work too soon

When faced with a disability, 45 per cent of working Canadians said they would have liked to have taken time off but could not do so because of finances, said RBC, while 51 per cent said they were forced to go back to work earlier than they wanted to because of their financial situation.

“You need to take care of yourself from a physical wellness standpoint, but your… financial situation will actually impact how quickly you can get back on your feet again,” she said.

“It affects their time to heal because they’re working when they really shouldn’t be working and they should be at home resting.”

And that should be a big concern for employers.

“(These employees are) not going to be at the top of their game, they’re not going to be the productive individuals that you had hired originally because their time is spent either thinking about their next doctor’s appointment and how to get there; they may be more tired, depending on the disability they have; they may be concerned even about getting to work,” said Winslow.

“It’s a life-changing moment, and if you can help as an employer to take care of employees by making sure they either have group coverage or even raising awareness around individual disability insurance… what you’re helping them with is ensuring when they’re there are work, they’re present and productive.”

There’s a need to be pragmatic, said Hodkinson, and that means individuals should be taking out disability insurance, especially when they’re younger and it’s cheaper. In addition, employers (and unions) should have employees undergo independent medical examinations, allowing people to bypass the waiting list for specialists.

“Forget about the employers’ interests — if you look at this as a medical issue, a medical model, wonderful things happen when the individual is put first. There’s an earlier return to work, self-esteem is maintained, family income is retained, and by the way, but never first, the company is a secondary beneficiary, and that’s a wonderful outcome,” he said.

“It’s so much more cost-effective to pay for a private assessment than it is to both suffer the consequences of absenteeism, retraining, productivity, and the likelihood of a premium increase next time around, which merely compounds the problem.”

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