The Impact of the Changing Workforce on Disability
The aging of the workforce combined with the changing nature of work has led to some changes in disability durations. New information suggests steps employers can take to get faster returns to work for certain employees.
“Findings indicate that age is a more important factor in disability duration than tenure; however, the relationship between age and disability duration varies based on tenure, suggesting that both age and tenure are important influences in the work disability process,” according to a new study.
Researchers looked at claims for a private workers’ comp insurer to analyze age of workers and tenure of work as they relate to disability durations.
The authors used data from Jan. 1, 2002, through Dec. 31, 2008. Only claims with at least one day of lost work time were included. The lost time comprised days for both partial disability and days of temporary total disability for workers aged 18 to 80.
A total of 361,754 claims were analyzed, of which 31 percent were for women, 50 percent had an annual income greater than $30,000, and 27 percent were involved in litigation.
The study looked at both age and job tenure — and the two in combination — in relationship to average lengths of time off for injured workers. It is one of the only studies that analyses how disability durations are affected by changes in the workforce.
“This is an especially important time to examine relationships among age, tenure, and the length of disability,” the authors noted. “At the same time that the workforce is aging, the typical career trajectory is also changing.”
According to the latest government statistics, the percentage of workers at least aged 55 is expected to be more than 25 percent in 2020 compared with just 12 percent in 1990.
Also changing is the length of time individuals typically spend at a single company. Instead of staying with one employer for an entire career, people now typically change their employers or careers several times. This is especially true for older male workers, where the median tenure for those 55 to 64 years old fell from 15.3 years in 1983 to 9.5 years in 2006.
“At the same time that the workforce is aging, the typical career trajectory is also changing.”
The study looks at the interplay between age and tenure and length of disability durations. It was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health and based on research by several academics and Dr. Glenn S. Pransky, director of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute’s Center for Disability Research.
“Age-related changes in recovery time after any type of condition are likely to play a major role in this relationship, but to the extent that other factors might also influence this relationship might have the potential to inform interventions and treatment plans,” the report states. “With the continued aging of the workforce and the changing nature of career paths, furthering our understanding of how and why age and tenure influence the work disability process is important.”
Previous research has shown disability duration increases with age, along with the likelihood of work-disability recurrence. The chances of never returning to work also increase with age.
The authors speculate that may be due to biological changes associated with aging and a higher incidence of comorbidities that complicate recovery.
Also, there is evidence that older workers may have less access to rehabilitation services, employers may not encourage older workers to return to work, and older workers may be in industries with fewer opportunities for accommodations to facilitate return to work.
Studies also indicate the length of disability generally decreases the longer a person spends at a job. However, the results of the study indicate that does not necessarily hold true for older workers.
For workers on the job less than five years, disability duration increases with age until age 70 when the length of disability decreases slightly to age 80. The same is true of workers with more than 10 years on the job — until age 70.
“Prior to age 70, as tenure increased, the predicted length of disability decreased; however, after age 70, as tenure increased, the predicted length of disability began to increase,” according to the study. “In general, the highest predicted length of disability was for the oldest workers with high tenure, whereas the shortest predicted length of disability was for younger workers with the lowest tenure.
The authors found that when taken separately, the relationship between age and length of disability was stronger than the relationship of job tenure and disability duration. However, when the tenure relationship was adjusted for age, the relationship was significantly different than unadjusted for age.
“The predicted length of disability was the shortest for midlife workers with high tenure compared with low tenure,” the study said. “For workers in the typical retirement ages of 65 to 70, the predicted length of disability was found to vary very little across the tenure groups, but by age 80, the predicted length of disability varied by approximately a week, with lower tenure workers having a shorter predicted length of disability than high-tenure workers.”
The authors speculated that older workers on the job longer may feel secure enough in their positions to stay out of work longer after an injury or illness. But older workers on the job a short time might try to return to work sooner for fear of losing their jobs and their inability to find additional work.
“From a clinical perspective, our results point to the need to gain a better understanding of the factors leading to the relationship between age and the length of disability,” the authors noted. “Age-related changes in recovery time after any type of condition are likely to play a major role in this relationship, but to the extent that other factors might also influence this relationship might have the potential to inform interventions and treatment plans.”
Employers may be less willing to provide appropriate accommodations for older workers to return to their jobs, according to the authors. Also, older workers might need more support from their companies to navigate the workers’ comp system.
“These workers might be less familiar with the resources available to them and might not have strong organizational and supervisor relationships to rely on,” the authors explained. “From an intervention perspective, it might be important to identify what types of programs and policies would be most helpful in these workers’ RTW process.”