Fall in number of people on disability pension

Poland has one of the highest rates of people of working age with an officially certified work incapacity in the EU. In recent years, however, a downward trend in the scale of disability benefits has been observed. Data on medical decisions concerning work incapacity sheds some light on the issue, while the public auditor points to the problems still present in social security policy regarding working disabilities.

About 7% of the working age population (15–64 years) in Poland are officially declared unfit for work. These people are thus entitled to disability pensions from either the Social Insurance Institution (Zakład Ubezpieczeń Społecznych, ZUS) or the Agricultural Social Insurance Institution (Kasa Rolniczego Ubezpieczenia Społecznego, KRUS). However, the number of people receiving disability pensions has been decreasing steadily over the past six years.

In 2000, the total number of people on disability pensions granted by ZUS amounted to 2.6 million persons, while in 2006 this figure fell slightly below two million people. KRUS reported 0.3 million people receiving disability pensions in 2006, compared with 0.8 million individuals in 2000. In all, less than 2.3 million persons were entitled to disability pensions in 2006, while six years earlier this number reached 3.5 million people.

Debate over high rates of work incapacity

The high occurrence of work incapacity among the working age population in Poland has long been a subject of debate, and a number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain the underlying reasons. One probable explanation points to the course of action taken by doctors who are licensed by ZUS to grant work incapacity certificates and, since 2005, by the medical commissions of ZUS.

According to the 2002 national census, about 10% of the population declared themselves to be ‘physically disabled’, of whom one in every four persons had not been officially recognised as such. At the same time, 11.7% of the population revealed that they had been officially certified as being disabled by the public authorities; however, more than one third of this group – representing 4.3% of the total population – declared that they were not suffering from any physical disability. This suggests that they may actually be able to work.

At the beginning of 2007, ZUS published data on the work incapacity decisions of its medical commissions for the period 2003–2005. The data indicate that, in a high number of cases, the medical commissions have affirmed incapacity to work, thus facilitating eligibility for disability pensions. In 2004, the number of applications that were considered favourable by the doctors decreased for the first time; in 2005, however, the rate of officially certified work incapacity cases increased again, exceeding the number of registered cases in 2003. In contrast, the number of cases verified through re-examination decreased significantly over the same period.

Officially certified work incapacity rates, 2003–2005 (in 000s)
Officially certified work incapacity rates, 2003–2005 (in 000s)
Year 2003 2004 2005
Certified work incapacity after initial examination* 148 132 165
Certified work incapacity after initial examination* 44 36 36
Certified work incapacity after re-examination* 642 595 542

Source: ZUS

Findings of evaluation report

For a long time, ZUS policy in this regard has been criticised from various angles. The criticism was reinforced by a report in 2005 of the Supreme Chamber of Control (Najwyższa Izba Kontroli, NIK) – a parliamentary-regulated body charged with controlling all authorities using public funding. The report considers certain policies and actions taken by ZUS commissions as doubtful.

Moreover, the evaluation of the doctors’ actions in terms of assessing individuals’ applications of work incapacity produced negative outcomes. In particular, the Chamber pointed out that the currently binding procedures and observed practices on the part of the doctors constrain the system of disability certification to its social security function only, while not offering any effective means of labour market activation for people with disabilities.

Furthermore, the report described the existing forms of both medical and vocational rehabilitation as unsatisfactory and suggested that the financial means available for those purposes were not entirely utilised. Finally, the report concluded that current certification procedures did not guarantee that people who are genuinely unable to work on health grounds actually receive their disability benefits.


The high number of people on disability pensions combined with a sizeable number of early-retirement scheme beneficiaries largely contributes to a low employment ratio for Poland, which in this regard ranks at the bottom in the enlarged EU. Furthermore, the high number of social security beneficiaries poses a serious problem for the social security system in its present shape. As the NIK’s report suggests, the need to change social security policy on working disability benefits to an activation and rehabilitation-oriented strategy appears inevitable.


Zakład Ubezpieczeń Społecznych (ZUS), Orzecznictwo lekarskie o niezdolności do pracy w 2003 r (1.02 MB PDF), 2004 (1.42Mb PDF) and 2005 (1.12Mb PDF) [Medical decisions concerning work incapacity in 2003, 2004 and 2005], 2003–2005.

Najwyższa Izba Kontroli (NIK), Informacja o wynikach kontroli funkcjonowania systemu orzecznictwa lekarskiego ZUS dla celów rentowych oraz systemu orzekania o niepełnosprawności (425Kb PDF) [Information on the results of control regarding medical disability certification system by ZUS], 2005.

Jan Czarzasty, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment