Magazine article Risk Management

Getting the Tough Cases Back to Work. (Return to Work)

Magazine article Risk Management

Getting the Tough Cases Back to Work. (Return to Work)

Article excerpt

As a retail worker, Jeff--not his real name, but a real return-to-work principal--suffered a back injury and did not work for several months. After his doctors cleared him for light work duty, Jeff baffled his case workers by showing up to job interviews with his two children in tow and wearing full fishing attire complete with hip waders and a hat adorned with fishing lures. During interviews, he failed to answer questions and asked prospective employers to sign a form to prove he had interviewed. He never got a job, but caught a lot of fish until settling his claim.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1998, 5.9 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses were reported in private industry workplaces. Of these, a total of 1.7 million workers--56 percent of whom were between the ages of 25 and 44--lost time from work as a result of their injuries or illnesses. Although it is difficult to determine national figures on return-to-work and its impact on workers' compensation settlement values, a large portion of the workforce is out of work and someone is paying for it.

Every day thousands of injured workers avoid going back to work. They intentionally sabotage interviews by wearing wildly inappropriate attire or acting hostile, aggressive and even threatening toward potential employers. They act out what some call the workers' comp return-to-work drama. In this production, the primary cast includes the injured worker, doctor, adjuster and, finally, lawyers. They are supported by the employer, private investigator, rehabilitation supplier and re-employment specialist. As some members of the cast try to end the play by getting the employee back to work or settling the claim, others counter their effort. After all, if the play ends, the money flow stops for some of these characters.

The good news is that such stories are the minority--about 85 percent of injured workers return to their jobs within thirty days of their injury. The remaining 15 percent, however, have been led to believe by doctors and lawyers that they may never work again; they are angry, afraid and often unmotivated to find work. Securing employment for them through a traditional return-to-work program is a major challenge.

Emotional Cycle of a Disability

During the recovery process, many injured workers experience negative emotional training from medical and legal professionals. Rather than exploring their patients' (or clients') potential for the future, doctors and lawyers often focus on what they will not be able to do until (or when) they recover. This is hardly intentional, since doctors and lawyers generally want what is best for their client.

But doctors are obligated to frankly discuss their patients' conditions, and to brief them on any possible disability they may face. Diagnosing a patient through rose-colored glasses is a sure way to a malpractice suit, and doctors know it. So for them, it pays to be bleak.

Likewise, while many attorneys want their clients to get back to work, there is a financial impact associated with claims resolution. Legal professionals juggling hectic schedules can inadvertently extend the litigation process by months or even years, stifling momentum toward recovery. This emotional drama weighs heavily on workers, lulling them into a cycle of disability.

By stepping in before these events unfold, employers can reduce their effect. Empowering workers before an injury occurs includes:

* Incorporating your human resources department. Make sure it is well informed about the organization's internal and external return-to-work options. Its staff should be readily available to injured workers so when questions arise, prompt and accurate answers can be delivered. This simple courtesy conveys respect as well as a no-nonsense expectation that time away from the job is assumed to be temporary.

* Sending a clear, unanimous message. From the top brass to floor managers, from clinic nurses to payroll staff, the employees must understand that the organization has an aggressive return-to-work program and is committed to doing whatever it takes to bring workers back in some capacity. …

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