Eight Challenges Facing the Workplace: The Aging of the Workforce and a Trend toward Shifting Healthcare Costs to Employees May Drive Increases in Some Health Conditions, but Could Lead Employers to Hold Insurance Carriers More Accountable

Article excerpt

Every employer is dealt a unique hand of cards in terms of its employee population, and the health benefits strategies any given employer should pursue depends on the cards it is dealt. There is no "one size fits all" solution to health care and productivity issues in the workplace.

At MetLife, we sit on one of the largest workplace disability databases in the country and have the ability to mine our database with state-of-the-art data navigation tools. We realized there was a need for a resource that would provide information and facts and figures to help individual employers determine the health benefits and productivity strategies they should pursue. From that realization sprang A Year in the Life of a Million American Workers.

Putting together A Year in the Life reinforced for me the surprising heterogeneity of employer populations. The size of your company, the industry you're in, and who your people are--specifically with regard to demographics--are going to drive your health benefits needs, and these needs will vary significantly from company to company to company. The more I look at the different "slices and dices," it never ceases to amaze me that one company may experience a lot of low back disorders and need to consider smarter lifting techniques, while another company may experience higher levels of stress and depression in the workplace and perhaps need to consider investing more in employee assistance programs. Still another company may experience higher levels of chronic disease in its workforce and decide that it should beef up its attention to prevention and wellness programs and strategies.

These differences in employee populations and needs are going to be exacerbated over the next several years by two trends, the first of which is the aging of the U.S. population. Actuaries have been telling us for years that as workers get older--as they advance from age 30 to 50 to 65 and beyond--their likelihood of incurring a disability (especially due to a chronic condition) increases. So the aging of baby boomers in the workforce is likely to drive increased incidences of both short- and long-term disability.

The second trend is that as healthcare costs continue to increase, employers are likely to transfer more and more of the cost and risk of health care to employees. Consumerism is a good example of this. Consumerism--which, to my mind, involves transferring risk, responsibility, and a certain level of economic burden to the individual employee--is the managed care of this decade.

KEYS FOR EMPLOYERS

One of the potential dangers of transferring costs is that people may be pennywise and dollar-foolish with healthcare expenditures as they begin to shoulder more of the financial burden. If people don't spend their money wisely, they can end up with conditions that could have been prevented with more careful spending. The challenge of consumerism, then, is to help people get the most value from the money they spend.

Another potential danger of transferring costs is that as more of the financial burden of health care falls on workers, access to and consumption of healthcare services may go down. This concern arises from what I believe to be the direct correlation between the availability of healthcare services and employee absence and disability Higher healthcare costs decrease access to healthcare services, especially in lower-income workers. As utilization of healthcare services decreases and people put off seeing doctors and other healthcare providers, morbidity is likely to increase. An increase in morbidity ultimately should drive an increase in disability.

I'm not saying employers shouldn't ask workers to shoulder some of the financial burden of their health benefits. What I am saying is that if employers want to significantly reduce their expenses for health benefits, they should focus more attention on the money they spend Specifically, employers can look at the conditions driving their absence and disability patterns to determine if there is a minimal investment in specific health benefits they could make that would provide a substantial return in employee productivity. …