Proper Treatment of Injured Employees Is an Important Element of Successful Return-to-Work Programs

In a study titled It Pays To Be Nice: Employer-Worker Relationships and the Management of Back Pain Claims, published in the February 2007 edition of The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Richard J. Butler PhD; William G. Johnson PhD; and Pierre Cote DC PhD discovered that workers’ satisfaction with their employer’s treatment of their disability claim is more important in explaining successful return-to-work outcomes than satisfaction with health care providers or expectations about recovery. The researchers added that dissatisfied workers have worse return-to-work outcomes because they are more likely to have lost time claims and multiple instances of joblessness.

The study found that the 64 percent of workers polled who were satisfied with their employer’s response had a medical claim only, while the 56 percent polled who expressed dissatisfaction had lost time claims in addition to the medical claims. For those workers who do have at least one lost time claim there is a lower likelihood of frequent injury-related absences. Only 32 percent of those satisfied with their employer’s response had multiple episodes of injury related absences, as opposed to 58 percent of those dissatisfied with their employer’s response who had multiple absences.

Maintaining a proper attitude toward injured workers is often a Catch-22 in most organizations. On the one hand, efforts to retain a skilled workforce are important because they give workers a greater sense of security, which is typically met with greater commitment to the success of the organization. However, there are concerns about how productivity is affected by reintegrating workers who are not yet fully recovered. That concern can result in instances where injured workers are treated with suspicion, and the validity of their claims questioned.

The pressure created by an injured worker on productivity and workflow is immediate. Although maintaining a good relationship with the injured employee will ultimately benefit the company, it can be difficult to keep this long-term goal in mind with the imminent demands of production looming. What usually happens is that the company ends up conveying to the injured worker that maximizing profits takes priority over their well-being.

This type of response on the part of their employers can alienate injured workers, and typically results in the worker extending the duration of the absence, or having more frequent reoccurrences. The overall outcome is increased workers’ compensation costs, not to mention the costs to train a new employee.

To combat the problem of alienation, organizations need to train first line supervisors in the empathetic treatment of injured workers. Supervisors need to learn how to express to the injured worker how much they are missed without making it seem as though their absence is only regarded for its economic impact. If the worker truly feels that they are needed in the workplace because they are a vital part of the team, and not because someone else has to cover for them, they will be motivated to return as soon as possible. The best way to give the injured worker this sense of belonging is through frequent expressions of sincere regard and regular communication that keeps them in the loop. If the return-to-work program incorporates these two elements, it will accomplish the goal of reducing the probability of lengthy lost time.

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