Social security institutions across Europe are facing common challenges despite significant national variations, participants concluded during a regional seminar on the theme of Sickness insurance, work (in)capacity and reintegration, which brought together administrators and experts on sickness insurance and rehabilitation from 18 countries, in Stockholm, Sweden on 7-8 April.
The event was hosted by the Swedish Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) along with the Swedish Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen) and AFA Försäkring, as an activity of the ISSA European Network.
Growth in the numbers of recipients of disability benefits
European countries face a double challenge, of long-term and consistent increases in the numbers of recipients of disability benefits, while managing the employment gap - the difficulty in reintegrating work - facing people with disabilities, according to the OECD’s Christopher Prinz.
The cause of this situation is complex and includes demographic changes as well as evolving labour market and working conditions. The financial downturn has increased unemployment in most countries, but has not automatically resulted in increased claims for disability benefits, underlining the importance of effective employment policies.
In his opening remarks, ISSA Secretary General Hans-Horst Konkolewsky emphasized that growing rates of absenteeism due to sickness and disability represent a key challenge for social security schemes across Europe, and finding effective policy responses has become even more relevant in the current social, demographic and economic context.
“Social security systems have increased their focus on concepts of prevention, early intervention, rehabilitation and return to work,” he stated. “Proactive and preventive policy approaches that holistically address both traditional and new labour market challenges, for example by not only responding to the high levels of sickness and disability claims, but also by promoting higher rates of employability among beneficiaries.”
From sickness insurance to labour market participation
Sweden’s Minister of Social Insurance, Ulf Kristersson, addressed the seminar and outlined the experience of Sweden’s newly-implemented “Rehabilitation Chain”, which is designed to move people out of sickness insurance and into labour market participation. Initial assessment of the approach is positive, as about half of those who have left sickness insurance moved to active participation in the labour market. Particular efforts are being focused on the under-30s age group, which has experienced an increase in sickness and disability claims.
Combined polices to respond to complex problems
Participants at the seminar agreed that rehabilitation of people with multifaceted problems – where there is a risk of long-term absence due to sickness or disability - is generally the most complex issue. Several speakers stressed that it is important to focus on work capacity rather than work incapacity, to use a combination of measures both in and outside the workplace, and to encourage cooperation among all the relevant actors, to facilitate a return to work.
Another common challenge identified at the event is the need to develop incentives to employ people with functional impairments, as this is a major and growing problem. Better vocational rehabilitation, skills development and matching of employer and potential employee can all be effective approaches.
Effective policies must seek to reconcile the potentially contradictory goals of providing income security to people during periods of work incapacity, while encouraging their participation or return to work, concluded Christopher Prinz. Improved financial incentives, greater emphasis on individual responsibilities and activation, and better collaboration of government, social partners and civil society can all encourage long-term solutions.
ISSA members can access the presentations from the seminar on the ISSA Extranet >>