Workplace Culture

Back, Tummy, Skin: Protect Them or Else

By Rick Bell

Jul. 1, 2014

What do chronically achy backs, overexposure to the sun and bulging waistlines have in common?

Besides affecting a large portion of the desk-bound workplace — the ones who are parked in their seats for much of the day — the triumvirate of health hazards also represents a 45 percent increase in absences from work due to surgical treatments. An analysis of the past 20 years by insurance giant Cigna Corp. of its short-term disability claims shows that absences related to obesity, treatment for skin cancer and herniated disc surgery increased sharply between 1993 and 2012.

In fact, herniated discs showed the most significant increase in short-term disability claims among sedentary occupations. Then there’s this good-news, bad-news scenario: absences related to depression are down (yay). But that’s likely because of a spike in prescribed anti-depressants (boo).

If you’re an employer, and you’re building or retooling a wellness and absence management program, this is important to know. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that U.S. businesses lose an average of 2.8 million workdays each year because of unplanned absences, costing employers more than $74 billion. “The aging workforce and a trend toward growing waistlines has made some medical conditions more dominant factors for short-term disabilities than they were 20 years ago,” said Dr. Robert Anfield, chief medical officer for New York-based Cigna’s disability insurance unit. “For example, arthritis- and tendinitis-related absences have both increased more than 50 percent since 1993.”

True, desk jockeys rarely get sunburned at work. But there are those reckless, hatless, shirtless, sunscreenless weekends outdoors. Among different types of cancers affecting short-term disabilities, American Cancer Society research shows the biggest spike over 20 years was from skin cancer.

“Employers must address these triggers with earlier intervention, vocational rehabilitation services and wellness programs,” Anfield added.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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