Jargon frequently used within workers’ compensation shapes injured employee perceptions, opinions about the system and the care they will likely receive ー eventually impacting the outcomes. At the 2018 National Workers’ Compensation & Disability Conference, Bob Wilson, President and CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, presented his thoughts on how to change this climate by emphasizing function and recovery.
It is easy for cynical thoughts to creep into the minds of every stakeholder in workers’ compensation, which comes with experience, but there is also cynicism in the minds of injured workers. And rightly so. These injured workers do not know how workers’ compensation essentially works, they are being contacted by people they have never heard of who are possibly using words like “investigation” when referring to their injury, and the questions about the process continue to mount. These individuals are being bombarded with outside opinions of what they should do, often receiving recommendations to hire a lawyer. On top of that, they are finding it virtually impossible to reach their doctor to get medical questions answered. It is not surprising that the workers’ compensation system does not have a great reputation in the minds of injured workers.
Going back to the roots of workers’ compensation, the “grand bargain” represents the industry and why it was originally created. It essentially states that employers would provide their injured workers with medical care and indemnity payments in exchange for no fault placed against the employer for the injury. This idea has frayed over the years and the system has become increasingly complicated.
Injured workers do not understand our process and they do not necessarily believe we are providing truthful information. The system has also become impersonal, using words like “claimant” and other similar vernacular. These terms do not make employees feel like we are treating them as humans with life-altering experiences, nor does it make them feel valued. Another term used is “disability”. We are not rating ability, but rather are rating the things that people can no longer do. By using this term, we are empowering disablement. The words we choose matter and these terms are not creating the perceptions that create a culture of healing. They can guide results if we use them properly.
Empathy and sympathy are very different things. We need to develop an empathetic view of what these injured workers are dealing with and, in particular, how it affects their entire personal life. The employee (and only the employee) decides when he or she returns to work. Become an advocate for them and break down the “us versus them” mentality. If we get rid of the “them”, it’s only “us”. This approach works. Employers who are applying advocacy-based claims handling are starting to measure their results and they are reporting tremendously-positive results.
When you take a deep look, workers’ compensation is improperly named. What word do you think injured employees are focusing on? Compensation. What we should call the system is “workers’ recovery” to change the focus on restoring a life. We should promote “returning to function” rather than “return to work”. We need to change the narrative to restoring the ability to function, focusing on the quality of life.