The world can be a dangerous place, and no one is invulnerable against an unexpected injury or illness. Unfortunately, many workers don’t take measures to ensure that they can cope financially in the event that they can’t work for several months or longer. For some, gaining peace of mind is simply a matter of having a conversation with their human resources department to learn about the disability insurance available. Others may need to take additional steps.

I recently asked Tracie Foster, an executive at health benefits company WellPoint, some questions about how employees can begin educating themselves about their disability benefits. An edited version of her responses follows.

What types of injuries does disability insurance normally cover?

Short-term disability insurance, which typically provides benefits for three to six months, usually covers what we call “non-occupational” injuries and illnesses, meaning injuries and illnesses that don’t happen at the workplace, but prevent the employee from performing work duties. Some examples of non-occupational injuries include injuries resulting from car accidents, sports activities, as well as slips and falls at home. Long-term disability insurance covers injuries that happen on and off the job. However, long-term disability benefits may be reduced if the employee is receiving workers’ compensation benefits for the same injury. Long-term disability benefits usually begin after the employee has been disabled for three to six months.

What can companies do to educate employees about disability insurance?

Companies should include information in their benefits materials and newsletters to educate employees on the chances of having a disabling illness or injury. While we all think that “it won’t happen to me,” nearly 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will suffer a disability at some point in their careers that keeps them out of work for 90 days or longer, according to the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education. The educational information should not be used to scare employees; it should help them understand that even small accidents and illnesses may require them to take time off, and should make them question whether they would they be able to afford their living expenses if this happened. Employees should know that disability insurance is a very inexpensive way to protect their financial security and well-being.

What should employees do if they find out they don’t have disability insurance?

More employers are offering voluntary group disability insurance to their employees. This means the employee chooses whether he or she wants disability coverage and pays the entire premium. Voluntary group disability coverage is a great way for employers to offer a very important benefit program to their employees without incurring the cost, and yet the coverage is very affordable for employees and significantly less expensive than an individual disability insurance policy. Employees can encourage their employers to look into that option. But if that doesn’t work, employees can contact a local insurance agent or go online to look for individual insurance plans.

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