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Long COVID, Chronic Conditions Double Absence Rate

Long COVID, Chronic Conditions Double Absence Rate

Dec. 15, 2023
Long COVID has had a significant impact on disability claims, duration, and costs, says Integrated Benefits Institute.

An analysis by The Integrated Benefits Institute looked at the impact of long COVID and some chronic conditions. The chronic conditions highlighted in the analysis include cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and mental health conditions.

The prevalence of long COVID has had a profound impact on disability claims, work absences, and healthcare expenses. According to a recent analysis of workforce absences in the Journal of Public Economics, around 500,000 individuals in the US were removed from the workforce due to COVID-related illnesses between March 2020 and June 2022.

Nearly one in five US adults who have had COVID-19 are still experiencing persistent symptoms three or more months after their initial COVID-19 diagnosis. The likelihood of developing long COVID was found to be more than five -times higher in those with severe COVID-19 symptoms, compared to those with mild or no symptoms. Those with moderate symptoms are more than two times more likely.

IBI’s analysis used data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) and the IBI Benchmarking Portal, the largest collection of claims for employer-sponsored short-term disability (STD), long-term disability (LTD), family and medical leave (FML), and workers’ compensation (WC) in the US. The study's findings shed light on the complex relationship that exists between long COVID, chronic conditions, and work-related outcomes.

The Impact of Chronic Conditions

Almost half (47%) of individuals with long COVID report obesity as a comorbid condition. More than one third (38.5%) of individuals with long COVID also report having a mental health condition – specifically anxiety or depression, followed by musculoskeletal conditions (22.7%). Approximately 5.9% of long COVID cases are also affected by heart disease or stroke, 6.1% with cancer, and 9.1% with diabetes.

Certain chronic conditions are more strongly associated with developing long COVID. Those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have 94% increased odds of developing long COVID. Those with musculoskeletal disorders have a 49% increase, obesity a 52% increase, and those with anxiety and depression have 38% increased odds of experiencing long COVID.

Long COVID in individuals without any chronic conditions results in an average of 10.2 missed workdays. Combining chronic illnesses with long COVID leads to a two-fold increase (102%) in missed workdays, from 8.9 to 17.9 missed days. For example, those with cardiovascular disease and long COVID results in an average of 26.2 workdays missed, a stunning 122.1% increase above 11.8 workdays missed for cardiovascular disease alone.

Startlingly, 52.5% of NHIS working-age respondents with obesity and comorbid long COVID have a work disability, underscoring the significant obstacles they must overcome. The comorbid long COVID and mental health disorders group has an even higher work disability rate (61.1%). And 37.1% of people with MSK conditions and comorbid long COVID report a work disability.

Disability Claims

Long COVID has had a significant impact on disability claims, duration, and costs. According to IBI’s Benchmarking Portal data, long COVID had 4,442 STD claims in 2021. The industries that report the highest STD claims are manufacturing (13,671 claims) and services (11,860 claims), followed by the finance, insurance, & real estate sector with 5,534 claims.

For COVID-19, the average payment per closed STD claim stands at $2,739. Long COVID, however, has a notably higher average STD payment of $5,417, reflecting the more substantial financial burden associated with managing long COVID-related STD claims.

The construction sector has the highest average payment for long COVID-related STD claims, at $11,744, followed by the services sector with a significantly higher than average payment of $8,779 per closed long COVID claim.

Long COVID has a much higher number of calendar days lost per STD claim at 90 days, compared with COVID-19 claims (22 days). Notably, 16% of these STD claims transitioned into LTD claims, resulting in 5,427 cases of long COVID LTD claims. These LTD claims had significantly higher payments, averaging $9,307 per closed claim. Importantly, 35% of individuals with LTD claims successfully returned to work within two years.

What Does This Mean for Employers? 

Employers face the challenge of navigating reduced productivity, disability claim costs, and the prolonged symptoms experienced by individuals with long COVID. IBI spoke with HR and benefits managers on how they are approaching the challenges this diagnosis presents.

  • Recognize long COVID's varied and extended symptoms, encompassing physical, cognitive, and emotional issues.
  • Promote a gradual transition back to work and consider the challenges employees face.
  • Be proactive in establishing policies to accommodate employees with long COVID.
  • Consider implementing a trial period and reevaluation process for accommodation requests.
  • Be prepared for the possibility of relapse after an employee returns to work.
  • Acknowledge long COVID's potential classification as a disability under the ADA.
  • Collaborate with affected employees to determine effective accommodation solutions.
  • Maintain open lines of communication to tailor accommodations based on specific symptoms and limitations.
  • Provide flexible scheduling to accommodate variations in energy levels and symptom severity.
  • Prioritize employees' mental well-being by encouraging behavioral therapy or counseling.
About the Author

EHS Today Staff

EHS Today's editorial staff includes:

Dave Blanchard, Editor-in-Chief: During his career Dave has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeekEHS Today, Material Handling & LogisticsLogistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Adrienne Selko, Senior Editor: In addition to her roles with EHS Today and the Safety Leadership Conference, Adrienne is also a senior editor at IndustryWeek and has written about many topics, with her current focus on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics. Previously she was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. She is the author of Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list.

Nicole Stempak, Managing Editor:  Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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