Workers Comp and Wellness: Partners at a Distance

May 12th, 2008 by

Bill Thorness has written an interesting article for NCCI on the relationship of wellness programs to workers comp costs. In some respects, it involves a “duh” thesis: wellness programs can significantly lower comp costs, because healthy workers are less prone to injury and, once injured, recover more quickly than their out-of-shape co-workers. Conversely, obese and out-of-shape workers are more at risk for strains and sprains, because the additional weight they carry compounds the impact of day-to-day workplace functioning.
There is even an overlap between wellness and one of the Insider’s favorite topics, the aging workforce. Older workers are more at risk for serious (and expensive) injuries such as rotator cuff tears. A relatively healthy, well conditioned, non-smoking older worker is more likely to avoid these injuries and again, once injured, more likely to shorten the normally extended recovery time.
With all of the compelling logic underscoring the benefits of a healthy workforce, it might be natural to assume that workers comp would jump at the opportunity to provide incentives for wellness programs – dare we say, even pay for them. Perhaps we could find examples among the national carriers, where workers comp safety programs include wellness training. Unfortunately, for the most part wellness remains an afterthought in the comp system. Aside from conventional safety programs, which focus on injury prevention, comp coverage tends to sleep like a hibernating bear, roaring into action only after injuries occur. Even then, wellness is a marginal issue: if, for example, obesity hinders recovery, carriers are unlikely to pick up the cost of a weight-reduction program, because the obesity is not work related.
Who Owns It?
The ultimate cost of most injuries is directly related to the health and conditioning of the injured worker. Logic says comp carriers should embrace wellness programs in both injury prevention and post-injury treatment. But as is often the case, it comes down to a question of who owns it, who benefits and who pays. Wellness is a proven concept, but comp carriers are unwilling to own it and very reluctant to pay. They are, nonetheless, more than happy to reap the substantial benefits.