Articles | Cases

15 actions to guide your risk management decisions - Part Two (9 - 15)

  1. Remote work creates unique organizational challenges and opportunities

    For many organizations, the biggest operational change has been shifting to remote and virtual work environments. Whether this will be a paradigm shift or a temporary solution will likely vary by company, however, many believe it will remain an option at some level for the foreseeable future as employees value work-life balance without a commute and many employers have not seen declining productivity.

    To address this almost overnight shift, many companies have provided virtual ergonomic training and assisted employees with home assessments for the new working environment. Telework policies were created or revisited to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the employer and employee.

    Some persistent issues faced by employers are disparities in home environments that affect the ability to work productively and safely, differences in employee technological skills, less equipment than what was available in the office, increased vulnerability to cyberattacks, mental health challenges of isolation, onboarding new employees, recording of hours for non-exempt employees, screen fatigue, and maintaining collaboration and motivation.

    Further, when employees work remotely from home or other locations, there can be thorny issues relating to workers' comp. Employers can't control the work environment of the remote worker in the same way they do an office environment, the "going and coming" rule becomes muddied when employees have to travel from home to the office or another remote location, the difficulty of separating personal activities from those associated with employment when accidents occur, and subrogation becomes more complex. Although there is some case law, it is limited, and employers should familiarize themselves with what exists in states in which they operate.

    Deciding the path forward requires a careful examination of productivity, employees' feedback and input, ability to manage cybersecurity, inequities in tech equipment and office furnishings, impact on on-site employees, ability to attract new talent, best practices that can help avoid injuries, and an effective telecommuting policy and agreement.

  2. Telehealth is here to stay, but a seismic shift is not inevitable

    The industry's reticence to embrace telemedicine seemed to evaporate overnight when the pandemic hit. Providers rapidly scaled offerings and states lifted many restrictions to increase access. Injured workers, who no longer could access brick-and-mortar-based care, were able to continue physical therapy, have medical equipment monitored, and have video checkups. Relatively minor injuries such as sprains and strains, burns, and abrasions could be treated remotely. Interest in injury triage programs and employee self-reporting of injuries has grown to expedite and improve care while controlling costs.

    Employers have indicated that the ability of injured workers to continue physical therapy services, a rapidly growing component of workers' comp, and virtual mental health sessions have been particularly helpful in controlling costs. Studies have shown a connection between recovery from low back injuries and PT timing and mental health issues often lead to protracted claims.

    Yet, there are limitations. Take the time to evaluate the outcomes of cases that shifted to telehealth and determine if the program is working for you. What is the injury profile of workers and do they match the types of injuries appropriate for telemedicine visits? How comfortable are employees with the process? Are employees getting better and returning to work? Did you carefully select the provider and familiarize them with your operations, recovery at work programs, and common injuries? Are opioid prescriptions monitored in the same way as your occupational medicine provider? How do the costs compare?

    Another major concern is the security of the network. In some states, apps like Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Skype, which do not have the security typical of a healthcare platform, have been approved for telehealth use. Many anticipate that regulatory issues will be revisited when the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

    For many employers, a hybrid-model combining virtual and in-person visits is likely to emerge. Employers should use this time to educate employees and strategize with providers and claims adjusters about the future.

  3. Fostering mental health resilience takes on growing importance

    Workers' Compensation coverage for workplace-related mental injuries has been a hot topic for the past several years. A growing number of states have enacted legislation that provides presumptive coverage for public safety personnel and some COVID-19 presumptive laws extended coverage to health care providers. But even when mental health issues are not compensable, they impact worker's comp by complicating and delaying recovery from physical injuries, leading to substance abuse, and contributing to the risk of workplace violence and workplace accidents.

    It is well documented that employees face new stressors from the pandemic and recession. Many are navigating economic uncertainty, lockdowns and remote work, balancing work and childcare, new ways of collaborating, personal or family illness, exhaustion, and social isolation. A recent study indicated younger workers, women, health care and tech workers are most vulnerable. The stress and anxiety will not end as the pandemic fades. London-based health and security services, International SOS's Workforce Resilience Council, predicts that mental health issues will overtake COVID-19 concerns this year.

    Employees' needs and moods are bound to fluctuate with changing conditions and organizations need a way to continually take the pulse on how employees are doing and provide intervention when needed. Assess how existing support programs are being used, whether "video-free" days are helpful, the effectiveness of mental-health-awareness campaigns, and participation in voluntary virtual coffee or social breaks and wellness activities. Encourage workers to take their time off and make sure they know the resources available and how to access them.

    While services have typically centered on in-person Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), digital mental health offerings have skyrocketed during the pandemic. In addition to telemedicine for individual psychological services, employers have turned to online platforms that address stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness such as Headspace, LyraHealth, MeQuilibrium, and Sleepio.

  4. Expect changes in the classification of independent contractors and employees

    Faced with an uncertain economic recovery and the need for flexibility, employers are expected to use more contract workers and more workers are expected to join the gig workforce in the coming year. While businesses are expecting that the DOL will finalize a rule that makes classifying workers as contractors easier before Biden's inauguration, many expect that the new administration will delay the effective date or find a way to rescind it.

    Moreover, gig companies are energized by their major win when California voters passed Prop 22, a controversial ballot measure to exempt firms like Uber and Lyft from having to classify their gig workers as employees rather than as independent contractors. As a result of this victory, gig companies including Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart launched a group called the App-Based Work Alliance to support their "Prop 22" type initiatives in other states, including New York and Illinois.

  5. Drug monitoring critical, but complicated

    As the coronavirus crisis continues to impact the workplace and the economy, drug-free-workplace initiatives have become more complicated to administer, while there has been a frightening spike in alcohol and drug abuse. Although the industry had made significant strides in controlling opioid prescriptions, there was a concerning tick up in the share of prescription drug claims with at least one opioid prescription in 2020 after a decline in the previous two years.

    Legislation legalizing marijuana was approved by voters in several states, bringing the totals to 15 states that allow recreational marijuana and 35 states and D.C. that allow medical marijuana. Psychedelic mushrooms were decriminalized in D.C. and Oregon, where they can be used for mental health treatment. Several cities previously passed similar measures, including Oakland and Santa Cruz in California, as well as Denver.

    The focus on COVID-19 meant that few state boards of health and legislatures dealt with regulations related to marijuana and little case law was developed in 2020. But it remains one of the top challenges in maintaining a safe workplace. Staying abreast of evolving laws and cases, as well as a clearly defined policy on how marijuana will be addressed in the workplace, are necessary to ensure the safety of all workers and decrease the likelihood of adverse employment actions.

  6. Communication with the workforce is forever changed

    Communication is always a challenge, but when you are dealing with a crisis and can't work face-to-face, it becomes an even bigger issue. Employees faced with uncertainty often looked for answers in the wrong places (i.e. social media). Regularly scheduled meetings with the CEO to provide updates about what the organization is doing, what had changed or stayed the same, and what employees need to know moving forward can help reduce employee anxiety. Transparency and honesty (even when bad news) builds trust and conveys respect to employees.

    While daily communications were the norm at the beginning of the pandemic, organizations have found ways to streamline messaging and adjust the frequency and tone to avoid information overload. Depending on the diversity of the workforce, that could mean disseminating information in multiple languages and through multiple channels. Employers have effectively used short videos to provide virtual walk-throughs of facilities, demonstrating the safety protocols as well as explaining new procedures. Alerts are used to share updates about policies and procedures, short newsletters can share company successes and team news. Words take on increased importance when emails and texts replace face-to-face and tone and body language are missing.

    Employees also need to have channels to provide feedback. Pulse surveys can help as well as open channels to HR and management.

  7. The digital transformation will accelerate, albeit cautiously

    Organizations in many sectors were in the midst of a digital transformation in the years prior to COVID-19, and the pandemic response built on this trend. Companies turned to connected worker solutions to help curb the spread of the virus and encourage self-reporting, virtual training allowed employees to learn without putting them in potentially unsafe situations, telemedicine became the only option for many injured workers, and utilization of mobile and video technologies surged with remote workers. All of which placed undue stress on tech workers who experienced double-digit increases in job stress, disordered sleep, burnout, and an almost 30% drop in motivation according to a recent study.

    In some cases, the implementation was swift and the apps and tools, as well as the service agreements, were not thoroughly vetted for privacy and security considerations, nor were employees educated on how their data is protected and cybersecurity best practices. Going forward, these issues need to be revisited.

    Advanced technologies also impact the value insurers can have for employers. More than ever, insurers are adopting advanced technologies for claims management, such as artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, telemedicine, wearables, mobile and chatbot to control costs, improve efficiency, and get injured workers back to work.

    In the years ahead, digital tools, wearable technology, AI, machine learning, robotics, and cloud computing are going to have a dramatic impact on the workplace and on culture and employers need to position themselves for the future.

While the pandemic has upended almost every aspect of the way we work and live, it has been a wake-up call that preparedness and resiliency against risks and threats are essential. Further, changing dynamics can become transformative as new processes and employee behaviors take root and new risks emerge.

Risk management is an ongoing process of identifying, analyzing, and controlling risks. As trained Certified WorkComp Advisors, we are skilled in managing the risks to the health and safety of your employees and are here to help.