Young and Unhealthy Urgent Care Required

By Jeremy Smerd

Sep. 27, 2007

Health experts are worried that employers underestimate the cost threat posed by increasingly unhealthy younger workers.

In the past five years, according to the Hartford Financial Services Group, the percentage of disability claims among workers under 40 increased. The percentage of claims for people over 40, meanwhile, has dropped.

“I think there’s reason to be concerned,” says Carol Harnett, national group disability and life practice leader at the Hartford. “We’re just starting to see the tip of the iceberg; we’re starting to see people get disabled in their 30s.”

Employers should take a hard look at what they can do to defuse these health care time bombs, says Michele Dodds, vice president for health and wellness at employee assistance and wellness company ComPsych.

“Looking at overall disability claims and other indicators, we’ve begun to see a stabilization with boomers, but not with Generation X and Generation Y,” Dodds says. The message has not reached them, she says. “They still see themselves as invincible.”

Employers with younger populations, like Nike and Google, have been particularly good at creating a culture of fitness aimed at younger people. Some employers make bicycles available rather than providing shuttle services to get around a corporate campus. Others, like Pitney Bowes and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have redesigned their buildings to make staircases a central feature and have focused on offering healthy foods at work.

The upside is that this generation is, in Dodds’ words, “particularly good at sitting at the computer for hours and hours on end,” so communicating health information using the Web, text messaging and instant messaging is a very effective approach.

Employers also may want to tailor incentives to the sensibilities of younger workers, who, Dodds says, want good behavior rewarded immediately with cash and prizes—not with discounts on health insurance and gym memberships.

For most employers, however, the health of younger workers is an afterthought, if only because, in absolute numbers, older workers represent a larger percentage of chronic illnesses and those costs are threatening productivity and competitiveness today.

According to the CDC, the prevalence of chronic illnesses, which often represent the highest health care costs to employers, is greatest among older workers. Among Americans age 56 and older, 24 percent have a chronic illness. Half of them have diabetes, and 25 percent have two or more conditions. That number drops to 11 percent for people age 40 to 55, and to 5 percent for people 25 to 39.

With the exception of asthma, rates of chronic illness and medical costs are significantly higher for older people, according to the CDC.

Campaigns aimed at making younger workers aware of their health risks may not resonate with them, even if it’s a message they need to hear, says Tony Merlo, national practice leader with disease management company HealthDialog.

“You can imagine that with younger people there’s less of a sense of urgency,” he says.

This lack of urgency is exactly what worries health experts, who say young workers—and some employers—live in the false belief that because of their age, young workers are not at risk for chronic illness.

In the past 30 years, obesity rates have climbed in every age group, according to the CDC. But with new research showing that obesity tends to increase among people with obese friends, the social network of the workplace can play an important role in reducing health risks.

“They’re young enough that they’re just going to cost a lot before they die,” Dodds says. “Don’t kid yourself: The poor health habits of a 28-year-old may soon turn into diabetes.”

Workforce Management, September 10, 2007, p. 36Subscribe Now!

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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