Why We Need Stronger Public Efforts to Prevent Work Disability
By Guest Bloggers Jennifer Christian MD, President, Webility Corporation, and Yonatan Ben-Shalom, PhD, Senior Researcher,Mathematica Policy Research
Despite a difficult childhood, Pete had made a good life for himself. He had a wife, two sons, and a landscaping job for a school in a Sun Belt state. Then an accident left him with severe back pain. His employer didn’t want him back until he was “100 percent.” Spine fusion surgery did not help. Pete lost his job. He believed his neurosurgeon’s unfortunate advice: “Don’t even bother looking for another job.”
The only thing Pete’s doctors did offer was opioid pain relievers. His new life was spent in a recliner, taking pills. Pete grieved the loss of his ability to be a good husband, father, and provider. He didn’t know what else was possible or where to turn.
Pete’s life didn’t need to turn out that way but, sadly, his story is not unusual. Millions of workers lose their jobs each year due to injury or illness. Understandably, most hard-working Americans don’t know the best way to respond when life is turned upside down because they can’t work. Some, like Pete, get both inadequate care and bad advice. Many who might continue to work end up leaving the workforce forever because practical help is not available at a critical time.
Our purpose is to shine a spotlight on a gap in our social fabric that is causing problems for people like Pete today, so that tomorrow people facing these challenges will get what they need in time to preserve their livelihoods.
Besides being a personal tragedy, withdrawal from work for health reasons (work disability) has a twofold negative impact on our society. First, we lose the productivity (and taxes) those workers would have contributed to the local and national economy. Second, such workers account for the bulk of the roughly $500 billion that federal and state governments spend to support working-age people with disabilities.
All Americans deserve timely assistance to maintain their economic independence and enjoy the dignity that comes from having a job. To help accomplish this goal, we and our colleagues in the Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Policy Collaborative (funded by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy) have been studying innovative programs in the private and public sectors, and assembling promising, practical strategies that federal, state, and local policymakers might use to prevent needless work disability.
As part of her longstanding efforts to highlight these issues, Jennifer developed a pithy statement of principles for work disability prevention, which provides background, makes the case for taking action, and points toward some solutions. Helping people whose work is being disrupted by health conditions to keep their jobs or quickly find new ones will benefit them and their families, as well as our society as a whole. Now is the time for policymakers, employers, and health care and other service providers to commit to developing solutions to this national problem.
The Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Policy Collaborative will host aforum and webinar on Sept. 13 to share policy recommendations for helping workers keep their jobs after injury, illness, or disability.
About the Guest Bloggers
Dr. Jennifer Christian is President and Medical Director of Webility Corporation. Originally trained as a board-certified occupational medicine specialist, she has demonstrated her ability as a leader in a variety of settings and geographic locales. She has built a foundation of broad expertise during her 20+ year career. Dr. Christian has designed programs that simultaneously align incentives, improve outcomes, and reduce costs. She has led successful development and implementation teams. Perhaps most importantly, she has a common-sense and straightforward way of speaking and writing that educates, inspires, and empowers people with the confidence to first try and then accomplish new things.
Yonatan Ben-Shalom, Ph.D., specializes in policies and programs related to the employment and income of people with disabilities at Mathematica Policy Research. He directs the Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work Policy Collaborative, an initiative funded by the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, and serves as principal investigator for several studies funded by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Since joining Mathematica in 2009, Ben-Shalom’s work has focused primarily on SSA’s disability programs and return-to-work outcomes among beneficiaries. Examples include a study of characteristics and employment outcomes among people who first received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits before age 40, a study of factors associated with the achievement of certain return-to-work milestones by SSDI beneficiaries, and an analysis of long-term statistics on the employment and use of work incentives among people receiving Supplemental Security Income.