Is pickleball the latest threat to HR? Employers, the ball is in your court

July 19, 2023

Someone making an overhand serve in pickleball.
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There is an underrated threat to employers today that no one is talking about: the game of pickleball. While I am joking about pickleball being a major peril, human resources professionals and organizations should pay attention to the injury reports and trends as it relates to programs that they support or offer under their wellness programs.

In 2020, AARP reported that 37.3% of all employees were over the age of fifty (50). Of that group, 15% were over the age of sixty (60). If you are a pickler (also known as a pickleball enthusiast), you’ll know that the most common group to play the game happen to be people over the age of fifty. In fact, according to UBS analysts, pickleball injuries will cost Americans nearly $400 million in 2023 alone, and that’s just healthcare costs. Between the tens of thousands of estimated emergency room visits and hundreds of thousands of outpatient visits with potential surgeries, understanding the injuries related to pickleball that may impact an employer’s workforce is critical.

More physical activity, more injuries

Whether an employer’s medical plan is self-funded or fully insured, the unexpected costs could be higher when you factor in the impact on productivity, disability costs and lost work time. The most common pickleball injuries occur on the wrist, leg or shoulder — commonly referred to as musculoskeletal (MSK) injuries. MSK injuries are consistently in the top five injury categories for employers, typically ranking either 2nd or 3rd as it relates to total claims filed.

By the numbers

Based on data from Sedgwick’s book of business between June 2022 and June 2023, there were more than 66,000 MSK injuries reported. Of those 66,000 claims, 66% of those claims (41,000) were filed by employees who are fifty (50) years or older. The average duration of an MSK injury claim was 72 days and the average cost to employers for just the disability portion was around $7,100 per claim. If we assume that 5-10% of those claims were related to pickleball injuries (based on the USB reporting) that means employers could experience between 147,000 to 295,000 lost workdays per year at a cost between $14,000,000 – $29,500,000. This doesn’t include the lost productivity issues that are associated with employees being out of work, statutory benefits such as paid family medical leave (PFML) benefits in certain states and potential time off under family and medical leave act (FMLA) and/or state leave programs. From 2022 to 2023, Muscle Skeletal injuries (including pickleball) were the third most reported claim type behind pregnancy and mental health claims.

What this means for employers

Aside from the lost work time and dollars, employers spend a lot of time and energy on wellness programs for their organization. They may offer incentives for employees to become more active at the gym or provide recreational activities to help promote well-being and potentially reduce long-term medical costs for employees. Pickleball is just one example, but this concept could apply to other activities such as basketball, weightlifting, swimming, yoga, gym memberships and the third rail of all sports in the business world, golf (deep breaths, folks).

For employers who — in an effort to reduce their overall medical expense and promote healthy habits in their workforce — provide incentives for employees that engage in healthy activities, they may find that they are increasing medical plan costs, especially as the workforce ages. Does this mean that employers should avoid these types of incentives? Absolutely not. It simply means that they need to thoroughly review their wellness programs to ensure a holistic approach.

Return to work and accommodation programs are often not included in a wellness offering. This introduces an opportunity for employers to change the narrative. Essentially, if you offer an incentive and the employee can no longer physically participate, you must have other reasonable methods for them to earn the incentive.

  • First, employers should consider if their return to work programs are aligned with non-occupational injuries. This can be handled internally or more often in conjunction with an employer’s disability carrier if they provide short- or long-term disability benefits for their employees.
  • Second, ensure that if an employee is injured while participating in a wellness program incentive that they are still eligible for said incentive under the reasonable standards provisions per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Offering competitive benefits such as wellness incentives are popular amongst employers and are seen as the right thing to do. Equally important is making sure that these programs account for an aging population. To win the game, employers need to create and continue to develop a holistic approach to wellness for their organization. With that…”Pickle!”

Tags: Employee, Employee engagement, employee experience, employer, employers, Wellness, workplace