Return-to-Work Advocacy: Communication, Collaboration, & Compassion

Brandi Melton, Public Relations Specialist at ReEmployAbility, Inc.

The impact of the pandemic across the U.S. has been broad and long-lasting. Individuals everywhere are experiencing more uncertainty about their careers and income, feel disconnected to the world around them, and are navigating new ways to work remote or under social distancing guidelines. These years of uncertainty and fear have led to challenges for employers as well, such as reduced employee engagement and challenges recruiting and retaining talent.

ReEmployAbility’s experience with return-to-work during the pandemic brought to the forefront the importance of personal connection and engagement with employees and injured workers. Utilizing the principles of advocacy and humanizing the workers’ compensation process helped us to build the connection that injured workers are lacking now more than ever due to the pandemic.

A comprehensive return-to-work program will advocate for employees, understanding that advocacy for the employee helps them through the workers’ compensation process and in turn helps employers retain talent and lower claims costs. An advocacy-based approach rooted in transparency and improved communication can address injured employees’ concerns, promote less adversarial relationships with employees, and ultimately contribute to better outcomes in your return-to-work program.

Looking at just one example of how impactful employee advocacy can be, let’s follow one Transition2Work participant’s story. ReEmployAbility placed Walter at his local community thrift shop. Walter is a Truck Driver and hurt his shoulder when he slipped and caught himself while climbing into his truck. After his injury, Walter was angry and disappointed when he learned he would miss work for an extended period of time due to his injury. Walter’s fear and anxiety is normal after a work-related injury. It is more important than ever for employers and case managers to advocate for their recovery with compassion and empathy.

“Like Walter, a majority of injured workers referred into our Transition2Work program have unanswered questions that their employer or adjuster should have addressed,” said ReEmployAbility CEO Debra Livingston. “Often the first time they hear about our program is from us when they receive the letter about their return-to-work assignment or the call from our team. Having their employer reach out to them to discuss their recovery early on in the process and to assure them they are doing everything they can for their employee helps relieve their fears about not being able to return to their usual job.”

Advocacy should be centered on helping the injured employee understand the workers’ compensation process, helping to mitigate concerns, and advocating for their improvement. Nekitta Tomberlin, Back2Work Liaison at Summit, calls it the “Three C’s of return-to-work best practices,” which are communication, collaboration, and compassion.

Communication

Many employees who are injured on the job are unfamiliar with the workers’ compensation process and often experience fear and confusion post-injury. Almost 60% of all workers’ compensation costs are driven by injured workers who experience fear. (1)

In an article for www.propertycasualty360.com, Kathryn Tazic, managing director at Sedgwick said, “We’ve found that explaining the [workers’ compensation] process up-front will help prevent litigation. The number one reason injured workers hire attorneys is that they don’t understand what’s going to happen to them as a person and they don’t understand the workers’ compensation process, which is getting more complicated.”

A 2010 study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute found that by calling the injured employee within a week after an accident to talk about their value to the company reduces the chance of lawsuit by 50%. This indicates that sometimes an injured employee will hire an attorney simply because they are afraid they will need them.

An advocacy-based approach to return-to-work should work with each person in the workers’ compensation process so the injured worker is informed of their options and who to contact while recovering. This helps ease their fear and confusion when dealing with a process that they most likely have never navigated before. Considering a person is at the center of each workers’ compensation claim, it is imperative to remember that these are people going through one of the most difficult experiences of their life. 

The workers’ compensation process is a complicated process. Injured workers need to be guided through it to help them understand the roles of the different players, including the adjuster, the nurse case manager, medical providers, and other service providers such as ReEmployAbility and what part they play in their recovery and healing. Injured workers want to be treated fairly, have an idea of how the process works, know that they will get quality care and understand how and when they will be paid. 

After he was injured, Walter received a letter from his employer regarding his light duty assignment with Transition2Work. The not-for-profit assignment in his community was nearby his home but the tasks he would be doing varied from his normal job duties. Communication with Walter, listening to his concerns, and reviewing options with him, helped ease his concerns about this new role he would have for a few months while recovering. Today, Walter is back at his normal job but is proud to share that he has returned to volunteer at the not-for-profit even after his assignment had ended.

Collaboration

Tomberlin points out that after communication, everyone must be constantly engaged and collaborate with each other. That includes the injured employee, the employer, the physician, and the adjuster.

“With collaboration,” said Tomberlin, “you have everyone working together to make sure that we come with a great end result.”

That end result, to restore the injured worker to their pre-injury health and get them back to their regular work is the entire point of the workers’ compensation process. This is a team effort and one party alone cannot see it to success – everyone must work together in the same interest with the same goal.

For Walter, this meant working with his employer, his case manager, and his placement manager at ReEmployAbility on his road to recovery. They, in turn, worked with each other to find the appropriate solution to get Walter healthy and back to his job.

Collaborating with not-for-profits to provide light-duty is a great option to help injured employees use their capabilities to make in impact on the community where they live while they recover. By placing an injured employee into an advocacy-based return-to-work program, an employer is sending a clear message that they value that employee and wish for them to remain engaged during their recovery, and that they are vested in that process.

Compassion

At the heart of an advocacy-based return-to-work program is compassion. Showing compassion, empathy, and understanding for an injured employee’s frustrations and concerns is an easy action that sometimes gets lost in the day-to-day work of claims. But compassion is the most important part of advocating for an injured employee’s health and well-being. That extra step of sending a card, calling to check in, or providing well wishes shows the injured employee that they are not just a claim number and they are not forgotten by their company.

“[Compassion] is the best way to get them on to that road to recovery,” said Tomberlin, “to get them back to being productive and being active post-injury.”

In Walter’s journey to recovery, talking to his employer, understanding his options, and being able to help his community even while recovering from an injury showed him that while the workers’ compensation process was new to him, there were many people in his corner working to get him better.

Compassion also means listening and adapting to the needs of injured workers, especially in a time where health concerns and social distancing are a high priority.

Debra Livingston, CEO of ReEmployAbility, said “Every return-to-work situation has a person and a family behind it that needs a support system to help them through a difficult time. So whether it’s a child care issue or a barrier of language, or transportation, you have to consider all those factors in a whole human being when it comes to return-to-work and helping with that process.”

ReEmployAbility is the largest national provider of early return-to-work (RTW) services and transitional employment. The benefits of their advocacy-based approach to return-to-work are far reaching, their Transition2Work® program offers employers a cost-effective solution to modified light duty assignments, reducing claim costs while giving the injured employee time to heal. Utilizing an accredited, national network of not-for-profit partners, they help employers accommodate injured workers in the transition back to work by connecting people to a greater purpose so they can have a better life.

Sources

  1. https://www.lockton.com/whitepapers/Leading_With_Empathy.pdf