As one of the top cost drivers in health care spend for employers, musculoskeletal issues can contribute to lost wages, reduced quality of life, and adverse mental health implications for employees.
However, according to a report issued this week by the Harvard Business Review (HBR), nearly 1 in 3 employees say it’s taboo to talk about chronic pain at work, with 81% of surveyed managers also saying it is difficult to know if an employee needs support for a chronic condition.
The report, The Future of Digital Care: Tackling the Costs of Physical and Emotional Pain in the Workplace, delves into how employers can better address chronic pain that may be overlooked and unaddressed.
Surveying 254 US respondents drawn from the HBR audience of readers (magazine/newsletter readers, customers, HBR.org users), participants answered questions on current benefit offerings at their respective organizations and perspectives on the impact of physical and mental pain.
Speaking on pain and productivity, a substantial number of respondents said it is difficult to be highly productive and engaged at work while experiencing physical pain (93%) and mental pain (92%). Moreover, 91% said that employers today could do more to support employees with mental health needs and 81% said the same for chronic physical pain.
So, what interventions are being provided to affected employees?
According to the HBR Analytic Services survey, 60% of respondents are aware that traditional physical therapy and other physical pain/injury treatments are available as health care benefits at their organization, but out-of-pocket costs have discouraged workers from leveraging these benefits. This causes employees to be in pain longer and experience adverse mental health consequences such as depression that lead to the need for a quick fix via prescription drugs or expensive surgeries.
As COVID-19 has changed the way in which care is delivered and perceived, the expansion of digital care is thought by many to be a silver lining amid the pandemic to ameliorate the high health care costs that are often unnecessary for treatment of conditions such as musculoskeletal issues that may be better addressed through a preventive, conservative approach.
However, the survey finds a significant gap (45 percentage points) in awareness about the availability of in-person physical therapy and virtual physical therapy.
With more than two-thirds of survey respondents (69%) saying that they believe their organization is open to new ideas for benefits and resources to address employees’ common health concerns, the survey indicates that companies will need to invest in educating employees on digital care and comprehensive preventive care and treatment that includes exercise, mind-body therapies, and psychological or behavioral counseling.
Notably, US Foods, one of America’s largest food service distributors, partnered with Hinge Health to employ its holistic digital musculoskeletal program. In addition to substantial cost savings reported by researchers from Stanford and Vanderbilt, analysis of US Foods’ 3-year medical claims showed that after partnering with Hinge Health, overall musculoskeletal claims declined by 50% and back and joint surgery claims dropped by 55% as well.
“The expansion of technology-enabled benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic can be a catalyst for supporting employees with additional digital care options that prevent and treat musculoskeletal pain,” said the study authors.