Practical tips to engage and motivate workers along the road to recovery.
In addition to the physical attributes of an occupational injury, many factors go into an injured worker’s feelings of readiness to return to work. Concerns can range from a fear of getting reinjured and the judgment of teammates to wanting to get back to normal and feeling needed by their employer.
Research indicates that these considerations are amenable to intervention and present opportunities for employers to assist workers on their road to recovery. We interviewed Dr. Jennifer Christian, MD, MPH, a thought leader within the disability benefits and workers’ compensation industries, who offered practical advice on how employers can support workers who have been injured on the job.
1. Humanize the situation.
When a worker gets injured, there is a common phenomenon that occurs: people often focus on the situation instead of the individual. Employees may be conjecturing about the circumstances of the injury. Or a supervisor may not want to bother the injured worker during their recovery. However, to the ailing employee, no contact from people they used to see every day may feel like a form of abandonment.
In order to effectively support injured workers and maintain a welcoming workplace environment, employers must consciously cultivate a positive workers’ compensation culture.
“Remember, this is a human being, and you have a relationship with them,” Dr. Christian said. “It is common courtesy to be sensitive to the worker’s personal experience.”
2. Don’t leave it all to HR.
It’s not uncommon for the Human Resources department to be tasked with managing employee communication throughout the worker’s compensation period. However, research shows that positive supervisor-patient interaction is significantly associated with sustained return to work outcomes. If the employee and his or her supervisor have historically had a positive relationship, then it is completely appropriate – and beneficial – for communications to resume during this critical time.
“We remember who helps us when we are down. Ultimately, employees want to return to employers they trust and who treat them well,” said Dr. Christian.
3. Make meaningful contact.
When reaching out to check in on an injured worker, a supervisor’s or coworker’s sole purpose should be to offer support and compassion. There is a claims adjuster who is responsible for determining the circumstances of the case, and medical details are the business of the worker’s care team. However, there are ways that teammates and managers can support injured employees without knowing all the details. Organizations should consider the value of a training program that educates supervisors on appropriate and meaningful interactions with injured workers.
“It would be appropriate to reach out and say, ‘How are you doing? We miss you.’ Fill them in on updates from your team – both project news and life events from their coworkers. Tell them that you don’t want them to feel like they are missing out,” Dr. Christian said.
4. Offer an “on ramp.”
One of the biggest psychological hurdles for a worker who has been injured on the job is seeing himself or herself as valuable when they are not at 100% function. Often injured workers feel that unless they can do their exact job to the same degree, then they have no place in the workforce.
But modified duty accommodations can allow injured workers to avoid social isolation and motivate their desire to remain a valued member of the team. During this transitional period, the employee can begin to retrain his or her body to take on mission-critical tasks while avoiding re-injury. In fact, research has shown that organizations who offer supervisors more autonomy over decisions of accommodation may help in preventing prolonged work disability.
“It’s the art of saying ‘We need you here; you make a difference’ but not ‘Do you think you can be here by next Friday?’” Dr. Christian said.
5. Give the worker a say.
When making return to work plans, many employers believe the decision lies solely with the employer’s care team. However, the decision of when to resume a job and in what capacity should involve the injured worker, as well.
Recent interpretation of the ADA’s federal disability policy has reinforced the “interactive process” in return to work determinations – that is, the idea that the employee has a right to be involved in the post-injury decision-making process.
For example, if an employee has injured his back on the job at a construction site, he may feel insecure and even a little fearful about returning to his typical work environment. However, if the employee’s supervisor asks him what he thinks he can handle rather than assuming he is not ready or does not want to get back to work, together, they might be able to find a comfortable middle ground.
“They might not be ready to go from sitting on the couch to swinging a sledgehammer, but there’s a good chance they feel comfortable doing something of value,” Dr. Christian said. “Then, work together to increase their load each week. Eventually, they will rebuild capability and confidence. It may be only a matter of weeks before they are back to work full duty.”
About Jennifer Christian, MD, MPH
Dr. Jennifer Christian is co-founder, president and chief medical officer of Webility Corporation, as well as founder and chair of the non-profit 60 Summits Project. She also founded and moderates the Work Fitness and Disability Roundtable, a free, web-based, multidisciplinary e-group devoted to work disability prevention and management with more than 1,000 members. She has both an MD and a Master’s Degree in Public Health and is board-certified in occupational medicine.