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The Surprising Trends Behind Today’s Disability Claims

Most people realize that disability is something they could experience one day. It’s hard to ignore an issue that affects one out of every four workers at some point during their working lives. But the top causes of disability are not always what people imagine or worry about.

We analyzed the top 10 causes of disability claims in 2017 for any trends or other statistics that might reshape what readers think about modern disability. We learned some surprising things.

Short-Term No. 1


The leading cause of short-term disability claims by far is something most people wouldn’t even think of as a disability: pregnancy. Twenty-eight percent of short-term disability claims in 2017 were for pregnancy. This was nearly triple the percentage of the No. 2 short-term disability cause.

This makes sense because when a woman gives birth, she’ll be out on maternity leave. And if there are any complications or issues, it could mean she will require a longer time before returning to work.

The good news is that Unum has seen a decrease over the past 10 years in health issues from complicated pregnancies,  thanks to a combination of advances in medical treatment, lower cesarean section rates and more resources for new moms. This has led to a 47 percent reduction in long-term disability claims stemming from complicated pregnancy issues.

Long-Term No. 1


The top cause of long-term disability is also not what most people would think. When people worry about disability, their nightmare scenario is usually a serious accident that puts them in a wheelchair or body cast.

Cancer is the No. 2 cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease, and is on track to become the leading cause in the near future. The good news is that from 1990 to 2014, the overall cancer death rate per individual case has fallen by 25 percent because of better treatment, according to the National Cancer Institute.

From 2006 to 2017, Unum saw a double-digit percentage decrease in long-term disability claims for female breast and respiratory cancers. This could be a sign that greater awareness, early detection and advancements in medical care for these issues are paying off.

Short-Term No. 2

Injury (Excluding Back Injuries)

It’s a dangerous world out there. A fall down the stairs, a car accident, dropping something heavy on the foot — all it takes is one second for a serious injury. It makes sense that injury is the No. 2 reason for short-term disability claims.

In many ways, society has become safer. From 2005 to 2011, injury-related hospital visits per 10,000 people either decreased or held steady for cuts, car accidents and being struck by others. However, injuries from falls have increased for all age groups, especially younger Americans.

Smartphones could be contributing to this problem. The number of pedestrian injuries from cellphone use doubled from 2005 to 2010, and Americans between the ages of 16 to 25 are most at risk for these types of injuries.

Long-Term No. 2

Back Injuries

Back injuries are about as universal a health problem as it gets. Roughly 80 percent of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Twenty percent of adults experience chronic back pain that lasts 12 weeks or longer.

For such a common problem, it’s no wonder that back injuries are the leading non-illness cause of long-term disability claims. People can reduce their chances of back injuries by staying at a healthy weight, exercising regularly and maintaining good posture while sitting, as well as by controlling stress, as stress increases muscle tension.

Short-Term No. 3

Joint Disorders

Unum’s short-term disability claims for joint disorders have steadily increased from 2008 to 2017. This comes from a combination of an aging workforce as well as rising obesity rates. The more someone weighs, the more wear and tear on their joints.

Although Americans realize weight gain is a problem that can lead to heart disease and diabetes, they might not appreciate just how problematic it is for joints. One out of five Americans develops arthritis, but this jumps up to one out of three among obese Americans.

Long-Term No. 3

Injuries (Excluding Back Injuries)

Injuries are also a top cause of long-term disabilities. To estimate what results in the most serious injuries, we looked at the Centers for Disease Control’s leading causes of injury deaths in 2016. The logic is that if someone survives a life-threatening injury, they will take a long time to recover from that injury. Accidental poisonings are the top cause of injuries for most age groups and are spiking because of the opioid crisis.

Car accidents are the No. 2 cause of long-term disabilities. Although vehicles themselves have become safer, cellphones have created a growing problem. One out of four car accidents today involve cellphones, and experts believe texting while driving could be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. Unintentional falls are a close third for injuries.

Short-Term No. 4

Digestive System Disorders

Digestive system disorders include problems with the liver, kidney, esophagus and digestive tract. These issues are common enough to be No. 4 on the list for short-term disability.

Although digestive system disorders make up 7 percent of short-term disability claims, they make up just over 2 percent of long-term disability claims. Our health care system prevents many of these short-term issues from developing into long-term problems.

Long-Term No. 4

Cardiovascular Disorders

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, so it makes sense that it would be a major contributor to long-term disability. The good news is that Americans have become better at preventing cardiovascular issues, as people quit smoking and use prescription drugs to control cholesterol. The total number of deaths from heart disease per year fell from about 750,000 in the 1980s to roughly 600,000 in 2014.

Short-Term No. 5


Cancer rounds out the top five for short-term disability claims, as people need time off work for treatment. The sooner cancer is detected, the better the survival rate. Colonoscopies, mammograms and pap tests are screening tests that have been proven to reduce cancer deaths. It’s a good reminder that everyone should keep up with regular checkups and screenings.

Long-Term No. 5

Joint Disorders

Joint disorders are last on the top five list of long-term disability claims. Almost 19 percent of Americans over the age of 65 are working at least part time, and as the workforce continues to get older, claims for joint disorders will likely increase.

By building awareness about modern disability trends, we hope that we’ve given benefits brokers a new outlook on how they can help their clients’ employees stay healthy and reduce their chances of experiencing these common issues.


Gregory Breter is senior vice president, Unum US Benefits. Gregory may be contacted at [email protected] .

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