In Workers’ Compensation, achieving a successful return-to-work outcome for injured employees goes beyond just following procedures and ticking off checkboxes. It requires a compassionate approach and the application of practical solutions. The panel “Achieving Return to Work with Empathy: Practical Solutions” at this year’s WCI Conference explored the concept of empathy and how empathy is a fundamental tool in facilitating the rehabilitation and return-to-work process. 

The panel included esteemed colleagues and Worker’s Compensation professionals, including: 

  • Debra Livingston, CEO/Founder ReEmployAbility, Inc. 
  • Greg Hamlin, Chief Claims Officer, Berkley Industrial Comp
  • Allison Kelly, Vice President Business Development, Sedgwick
  • Kim Pfingstag, Manager of Occupational Care and Recovery, International Paper

Understanding the Essence of Empathy

Empathy is paramount when working with injured workers and the worker’s compensation industry. Though it may seem fundamental, empathy is truly a skill that needs to be developed. Empathy is the practice of sharing the emotions of others, allowing us to place ourselves in their shoes. There are often challenges for worker’s compensation professionals to meet an injured worker, whether that comes from preconceived biases, old-school training, or shortened bandwidth; it’s important for everyone to reflect on their own ideas and understand how levels of empathy play a role in your work. We’ve all experienced empathy during the challenging times of the recent pandemic, but even more so, we need to make a difference in the industry by prioritizing empathy as a best practice. 

The Impact of Prolonged Workplace Absence

The duration of an employee’s absence from work following an injury directly affects their chances of returning to employment successfully. Research shows that after six months of absence, the likelihood of returning to work decreases by 50%, dropping to a mere 5% after one year. The statistics clearly underline the importance of implementing strategies to assist injured workers in their rehabilitation journey. In order to mitigate these concerns, starting claims from a place of listening and empathy will allow adjusters to do the best they can for the injured workers. 

The Role of Effective Listening

Effective listening is paramount in Workers’ Compensation claims. It starts with understanding the significance of clear and open communication. To ensure injured workers feel heard:

  1. Provide them with undivided attention and convey that their thoughts and concerns matter.
  2. Ask open-ended questions to encourage injured workers to express themselves fully and reflect on what you’ve heard to confirm that their message has been understood.
  3. Most importantly, practice empathy by putting yourself in their shoes.

These practices lead to increased engagement and better outcomes.

When we take the time to listen to each other, we can glean important information that can elevate the type of work that we do on a file and prioritize the needs of the injured worker. 

We can’t do that without taking the time to listen carefully. 

The Art of Active, Reflective, and Empathetic Listening

During the panel, Greg Hamlin mentioned three ways to grow your listening skills using the phrase “ARE you listening?” You can step into that listening space by being active, reflective, and empathetic and learn more about what the injured worker needs.

  •  Active listening involves setting aside personal emotions to understand the injured worker’s emotions fully. You connect with their feelings by immersing yourself in their emotional state. 
  • Reflective listening allows you to mirror their feelings and demonstrate your understanding. 
  • Empathetic listening means genuinely empathizing with their situation showing them you care about their well-being.

Maintaining Confidentiality and Trust

Likewise, maintaining confidentiality as an adjuster is paramount. Injured employees must feel secure and comfortable when sharing their concerns with you. While challenging claims may tempt you to discuss them with colleagues, remember that such actions breach the trust established with the injured worker. Upholding confidentiality is critical to building a respectful and trusting relationship. It’s easy to complain about difficult cases, but doing that upends the efforts that you’re making and can directly impact the outcome of the claim.

Non-verbal cues and engagement

Non-verbals are a communication baseline and incredibly important to pay attention to. Consistent eye contact signals active engagement and interest in listening. When individuals feel acknowledged and heard, they become more comfortable sharing the true nature of their troubles, including their vulnerabilities. In your role as a claims adjuster, honesty is essential, and active listening helps build that trust. Empathy allows a claims adjuster to take the time to listen and build that trust. 

The Financial Impact of Effective Communication

Effective communication reduces the cost of a claim by 20 to 50%. By communicating effectively, adjusters can glean a deeper understanding of the injured worker’s experiences, leading to valuable insights into the injured worker’s circumstances. This information is crucial for accurate claim assessments.

Navigating a Complex Process

Injured workers often feel overwhelmed by information and interactions with various individuals, including HR representatives, nurses, examiners, and insurance personnel. All stakeholders have a role to play in listening to the concerns and needs of the injured worker; in doing so, you can guide them through their recovery process seamlessly. This approach focuses squarely on what is best for the injured workers. More importantly, by beginning with the goal of doing the very best for the injured worker, we can make the transition to navigating a claim much more streamlined. Oftentimes, injured workers are unsure about what an injury could mean for their recovery, their job, or their insurance – it’s the role of HR professionals to assure that they understand what is happening and that we are there to serve them as best as we can. 

Small Gestures, Big Impact

Thoughtful gestures can demonstrate care in a workplace setting. Sending flowers or cookies to individuals undergoing surgery provides comfort and support during recovery. Staying in touch with injured colleagues through text messages, offering updates, and showing genuine concern for their well-being can make a significant difference. We often hear of injured workers who have not received any condolences or guidance after incurring a work injury, resulting in an injured worker who feels alienated from their workplace. Small actions highlight the importance of connection in a claim and allow the injured worker to feel supported during a trying time. 

Compassion as a Foundation

Policyholders contact insurance adjusters usually during challenging times, often due to an injury or unfortunate event. Maintaining a compassionate approach helps establish a foundation of empathy. Empathy is crucial because it eases the concerns of injured individuals and contributes to a streamlined process. It should be a daily practice, a reminder of empathy’s importance in the claims process. Treating people with dignity and respect leads to better outcomes for injured workers. It allows the claims process to progress naturally and allows concerns to be addressed as they come up rather than allowing issues to fester, possibly resulting in disgruntled workers. By centering the well-being of the injured worker on a claim, all Work Comp professionals are working together to ensure that the individual is getting what they need with the process. 

Ultimately, achieving a successful Return-to-Work in Workers’ Compensation requires empathy and effective communication. By actively listening, maintaining confidentiality, and demonstrating care, adjusters and claims professionals can actively create a supportive environment, enabling the well-being of injured workers. Empathy should be at the heart of every claims professional’s practice, reminding us that we can achieve better outcomes by treating people with kindness and understanding.

Remember to ask yourself, “How can I do better?” This question reminds us to strive for excellence in our claims processes continually, and it all begins with listening.

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