Happy employees recover from injuries more quickly

Morale critical in curbing workers’ comp costs

A new survey of injured workers shows that those who have good relationships with their employers are much more likely to return to work sooner and much less likely to contact attorneys. The survey, which included random contacts with 8,500 workers, was conducted by The Gallup Organization for Intracorp, a Philadelphia-based workers’ compensation managed care firm.

What Intracorp calls the "halo effect" can be critically important in determining the amount of time it takes for an injured employee to return to work, notes Susan Fazo, director of marketing for workers’ compensation managed care. "This entails letting employees know upfront what the company will do if they become injured, what the employee should do to ensure they get the right care from the right doctors, channeling the employees to the right occupational specialist, and continually reinforcing a message of caring," notes Fazo. (For more "Halo Effect" components, see "Effective Workers’ Comp Strategies," p. 104.)

The study’s findings make sense to Jennifer Christian, MD, medical officer with Managed Comp, a Waltham, MA-based managed care workers’ compensation company. "I agree with the findings for two reasons," says Christian. "Just from basic human common sense, when my grandma was mad at my great aunt, her arthritis bothered her more. The other piece is this: One way you can measure the strength of a relationship is how much discomfort, or risk, one is willing to go through for someone else. That’s the measure of the strength of a bond — the measure of devotion or commitment. Clearly, people who are less committed, or disaffected, will be more likely to use illness or injury as a ‘ticket’ for time off."

Communicate often and early

Of all the components of the "halo effect," early communication was cited by the respondents to the Intracorp survey as most important. "I think the most significant finding of the survey is that prior communication about the workers’ comp process impacts the entire workers’ comp experience for the injured worker," says Fazo.

But, notes Christian, the message that the employer is concerned must be continually communicated throughout the entire recovery process. "We try to teach employers to create an environment that applies the golden rule — to treat injured employees as they would like to be treated themselves," she says. "To show compassion, to make sure that they get good care, and to emphasize the positive in the way you treat employees at the moment of injury and during recovery."

As human beings, we form very powerful memories during the moments we become hurt, Christian adds. "Thus, you have very strong memories of who did and who didn’t help you. The moment of injury is a moment of opportunity — to form or break the bond with an employee. That’s why we encourage managers to come to the employee’s assistance and to accompany them to the provider."

Too often, says Fazo, this type of response is not forthcoming. "If an employee is injured, very often there is an aura of suspicion," she notes. "Usually, the super doesn’t call, and you never hear from your co-workers. That’s why the employer needs to put proactive communications in place on an ongoing basis — and that includes outreach from the super and co-workers."

An opportunity for employers

The survey, says Fazo, "sends a huge message of opportunity to employers. There is a tremendous amount within their control they can do that would really impact workers’ comp costs."

The two big cost drivers in the workers’ comp area, she notes, are medical costs and lost time — and lost time wages are the single largest variable. "Also, your total workers’ compensation costs will go up an average of 15% if an attorney is involved," she says. "So, by making it more likely the employee will return to work more quickly and less likely they will see a lawyer, you get to the heart of the matter of workers’ comp costs."

Involve benefits managers in workers’ comp

And just how can employers get to the "heart of the matter?" One way is for them to encourage communication between benefits managers and risk managers, says Fazo.

"Traditionally, the benefits managers have not been involved in the workers’ comp side," she explains. "But this study shows that risk managers and the workers’ comp side of the house can learn a lot from benefits managers about the way they communicate wellness and other programs and how that impacts employee attitudes. There’s a lot that they can share."

Just how much sharing takes place depends on the reporting structure within the company, says Fazo. "But as more managed care techniques are put in place, those risk managers who have never dealt with these issues before will go to benefits managers for guidance. And reporting structures are changing as well."

Christian offers this caveat concerning the benefits of the managed care environment: "It depends on which version of managed care you’re talking about," she asserts. "Are you talking discounts and ‘cheap?’ Then the answer is ‘No.’ But to anticipate what people will need and to have it all prearranged, will greatly increase the chances that an injured worker will be in an environment that is appropriate."

Benefits managers need to remember, says Christian, that serious workers’ comp problems are often a symptom — a stand-in for the underlying real problem. "Employees watch how previous injuries are handled," she notes. "Your response teaches every other member of that work group where you are. They look for signals on how injuries are handled. By being positive, compassionate, and businesslike, you send a powerful message and create the expectation in every employee of how they will be treated if it happens to them."