Work absences related to obesity, treatment of skin cancer and herniated disc surgery skyrocketed in the past 20 years while hurting productivity for employers, according to a new study by Cigna Corp.

The study of short-term disability claims is a glimpse into some of the main causes of employee absences from work. Interestingly, earlier detection and new treatments have increased the percentage of workers out on short-term disability for skin cancers and other conditions.

And during the period of the study, there was a 45% increase in absences due to surgeries for herniated discs, the bane of workers in sedentary occupations.

Cigna in its study said that lifestyle and behavior factors remain the key drivers of absences and that employers can address these factors with early intervention, vocational rehab services and wellness programs.

“As employers increase their focus on managing lost work time, they need to understand how disability is changing and what opportunities they may have to intervene and improve experience,” said Thomas Parry, president and chief executive officer of the Integrated Benefits Institute.

It’s estimated that 2.8 million workdays are lost every year in the U.S. due to unplanned absences, costing more than $74 billion.

Musculoskeletal disorders currently account for 25% of all non-maternity-related absences – the same as in 1992 – and rank as the most-frequently approved short-term disability claims, also the same as in 1992.

But as the workforce ages and American waistlines expand, other factors are prominently affecting absences due to short-term disabilities.

Musculoskeletal disorders aside, the study points to a new set of factors that are increasing time away from work:


Herniated discs (absences increased 45% between 1992 and 2012) – The results of advancements in back surgery have led to an increase in the number of operations but a decrease in the average time away from work. Absences increased largely because more people have become candidates for back surgery, which has resulted in an overall rise in absences.

Employer strategy: You can help your employees better cope with their specific back conditions, especially those that may not currently need surgery. You can inspect their workstations to ensure they are ergonomically correct.  Also look for other issues in their daily work routine that may contribute to back and muscle problems.

If you do have someone that goes out on leave for back surgery and, if they may not be able to return to their old job, you may want to consider a vocational rehabilitation program.


Obesity (absences linked to obesity rose 3,300%) – The increase in the number of absences due to obesity may be the result of “increasing effectiveness and popularity of bariatric surgeries,” according to Cigna. The numbers don’t reflect the effects of chronic health problems like diabetes and some musculoskeletal problems that can be linked to obesity.

Obesity can also affect your workers in other ways that may not result in absences. Obese individuals who don’t change their lifestyle and become more obese, will see a steady deterioration in their physical abilities, which in turn can lead to depression.

Also, according to Cigna, “presenteeism” – defined as sick or distracted employees who choose to work anyway – accounts for 39% of the total cost of obesity to employers and as much as 75% of lost employee productivity from U.S. employers.

Meanwhile, although many people have benefited from stomach reduction surgeries, which require time off work afterwards, others struggle because they don’t change their eating habits and start gaining weight again.

Employer strategy: Employers that provide resources and coaching, such as employee assistance programs and vocational rehabilitation services, can help employees become more productive and enjoy long-lasting health.


Cancer (absences due to skin cancer increased 300%) – Trends in cancers have been a mixed bag in terms of absences, with a big reduction in lung cancers but increases in skin cancers being the most pronounced. However, absenteeism due to cancer has increased because survival rates have risen and earlier detection has increased cancer duration.

Employer strategy: Employers should consider implementing absence management strategies that integrate wellness programs, disease management programs and vocational rehabilitation services to meet the needs of cancer patients. Cigna’s study showed that a combination of these programs helped 97% of survivors rejoin the workforce.

Sometimes an employee may also have to become a caregiver should a family member come down with cancer. You will need to have in place policies for family and medical leave (FML) time. Because of the stress and mental toll caring for a cancer patient takes, nearly 80% of FML absences can also become a short-term disability absence.

Employees of companies that have an FML administration and integrated disability strategy in place and engage with employees will often spend seven fewer days away from work.


Depression (the fifth-leading cause of absence)

While overall, the number of days missed for depression has decreased, it’s still a major drain on companies. More than one-fourth of Americans aged 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. The use of anti-depressants has likely helped reduce the numbers of people out for depression-related problems, but Cigna believes it may have resulted in increasing presenteeism.

At the same time, fewer people are seeking treatment. While disability claims, durations and overall absences are down, major depressive disorder is still the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44. But presenteeism accounts for more of the total productivity loss than absenteeism.

Employer strategy: Once again, an employee assistance program can help people with mental needs to access the care they need.