Mental problems burden disability insurance

An increase in mental health cases has caused a huge rise in disability benefit claimants over the past decade and put a strain on the state insurance scheme.

This content was published on June 11, 2007 - 12:00

Politicians disagree over the reasons for the phenomenon, while experts blame it on harmful stress-inducing changes in society and more pressure at the workplace.

Voters will decide next Sunday on a planned reform of the disability scheme aimed at cutting costs and rescuing it from the brink of financial collapse.

Officials say the number of claimants has jumped by more than 80,000 from 173,000 in 1997 - mainly as a result of increasing numbers of diagnosed mental disorders.

There has been an eight per cent annual increase in people classed as unfit for work for psychological reasons. They now account for about 40 per cent of the total of 256,300 beneficiaries.

The political right argues that figure reflects a widespread abuse of the disability benefit scheme, with so called "bogus claimants" ruining Switzerland's social security system.

But Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin has repeatedly rejected such allegations and health experts say it is a fact that there is growing psychological stress in the workplace.

"The most likely reasons for the increase in cases of mental problems are the pressure, the faster pace and fewer possibilities for worker participation," said Achim Elfering a specialist for industrial psychology at Bern University.

Worldwide trend

He points to the economic slump in the 1990s, which led to numerous company closures, redundancies - particularly of unskilled workers - and the easing of labour regulations at the expense of employees.

"We observe similar phenomena across the industrialised world," Elfering added. "Take the example of Germany where there is also a clear increase in the number of – mostly young - people who are unfit for work for psychological reasons and who receive disability benefits."

Detailed statistics of other countries are not readily available and comparisons would be problematic, according to Erhard Gysin of the Federal Social Insurance Office.

"The definition of a psychological disorder is not universal for the insurance sector and the disability insurance systems differ considerably," said Gysin.


Elfering says he can't rule out cases of abuse where people pretend to suffer from a disorder to obtain benefits. But he warns against the use of the term of "bogus patients".

"Many people who were diagnosed with psychological problems or other disorders which are difficult to pin down often feel left alone to their fate.

According to Elfering, there is a high risk of the problems worsening and becoming chronic if nothing is done about them.

He rejects allegations, raised by some on the political left, that employers as a rule pursue a policy of shunting off underperforming employees onto the state disability insurance scheme.

"This is not in the interest of an employer. It is costly to replace the know-how of an experienced employee," says Elfering.


He considers the proposed reform of the disability benefit scheme a step in the right direction, as its aim is to improve prevention.

"It is key to intervene at an early stage in cases of psychological disorders. It can help prevent people with mental problems from being shut out from the job market," says Elfering.

He is convinced that all sides have to make an effort to boost integration of weaker members of society.

"It's clear employers have a very important role to play. They have to raise their awareness of psychological problems and stop their employees becoming permanently unfit for work."

swissinfo, Andrea Tognina and Urs Geiser

In brief

Parliament approved the reform, aimed at cutting costs and improving integration of disabled people into the labour market.

But two small organisations for the disabled – backed by centre-left parties and trade unions – challenged the amendments to a nationwide vote on June 17.

Last year the disability insurance scheme - which shares its coffers with the state old age pension scheme - made a deficit of SFr1.6 billion and notched up debts of SFr9 billion.

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Key facts

Total number of beneficiaries: 256,300
Unfit for work for psychological reasons: 96,208
Annual increase: 8%
Estimated annual cost of stress: SFr4.2 billion ($3.4 billion)

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The total number of beneficiaries increased from 173,216 in 1997 to 256,300 last year.

The percentage of claimants unfit for work for psychological reasons rose from 28% to 37.5% in the same period.

The second-largest group of beneficiaries are people suffering from illnesses affecting their muscles and bones. They account for 21.5% of cases, up 1.5% from 1997.

The biggest annual increase in disability cases was in 2003, but last year stood at 19,600, down 30% on 2003.

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