The work disability trap: manifestations, causes and consequences of a policy paradox Academic Article uri icon

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  • Purpose

    This article focuses on the risk that work disability policies lock people into work disability rather than promote durable health and return to work. We outline the concept of a work disability trap as a heuristic device to explore this policy paradox inherent in the design of most social insurance systems.

    Materials and methods

    This is a conceptual paper drawing on examples from existing research.


    We identify three manifestations of the disability trap: not overcoming disability; underperforming; and returning to work prematurely. The causes of these manifestations are identified as structural rather than based on malingering clients, while negative consequences are identified both on client and system levels.


    We emphasize the need for systems built on trust and reasonable expectations, and the need for providing rehabilitation support independently of economic compensation. Universal basic income is introduced as a potential tool to ameliorate some of the consequences of the disability trap.Implications for rehabilitationCompensation systems focusing too prominently on early return to work may have counter-productive effects on rehabilitation.Overly suspicious assessment systems nurture a view of people as malingerers.Rehabilitation professionals need to be attentive to system-generated effects which may prevent overcoming work disability.

publication date

  • May 16, 2022