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Why Training Line Managers Is Important

(The following articles are a summary of a May 2005 column written by Dr, Jennifer Christian, President/Chief Medical Officer, Webility Corporation. Please see related article on the Teleclass she will be conducting on January 25, 2006.)

When an employee goes out on workers’ comp, the supervisor thinks most about getting a replacement to get the work done. The employee’s unexpected absence disrupts the production schedule, puts pressure on fellow employees and if the company has an incentive program, the supervisor and co-workers may lose their bonus. This often leads to veiled or overt hostility or abandonment and neglect.

Supervisors don’t understand that hiring and training a new person is oftentimes more costly and less productive than getting the injured employee back to work. Although supervisors are critical to the success of return-to-work (RTW) programs, few are properly trained on how to do it.

The process of training is not as overwhelming as it seems. The extent and timing of training should be adjusted to the likelihood of its being needed. Training is forgotten when it is not used. For departments with a history of frequent, problematic injuries, an initial training of all supervisors may be required with refreshers for individuals as needed. For departments with infrequent injuries providing initial training on a just-in-time basis is probably better. Your lost time claim in-take process can trigger a requirement for formal training of the supervisor.

A common solution today is for companies to select and train one person who can then be a resource for others. In companies with medical departments, this might be a nurse or case manager; in others it might be a HR person or administrative staff. They work with the physicians to get the employee back to work in the least amount of time and in the best shape. When the employee returns to work, they work with the employee and supervisor in making temporary or permanent adjustments to the job as necessary. In small companies, this responsibility falls to the company president, office support staff or even the supervisor.

Even in companies with in-house medical departments or contracted occupational health clinics, training line supervisors is critical. It is unlikely that the corporate staff will have the ability or time to monitor what is happening every day. The supervisors are the only ones who can monitor what is happening ‘on the line’ every day. They create the microclimate in which people work – and many supervisors have never had any training in how to manage people, much less people who are feeling hurt and vulnerable.

The content of the training should be highly focused around active management of the situation and maintaining contact with the injured employee. The goal is to make supervisors feel comfortable managing a situation outside of their expertise, while understanding what you expect them to do.
In many cases, pre-training for first line supervisors can be provided in about 15 minutes in a group session and then reinforced during production meetings on a weekly or monthly basis. Accidents and injury status should be an integral part of discussions.

This brief training will allow you to expect and require your supervisors to take certain actions at the start of any incident. These should include the immediate notification of others if there is a problem employee (i.e., late reporting), a problem supervisor (who fails to follow procedures) or a problem doctor (does not address the return to work issue when presented with a reasonable request).

Beyond this brief preparedness training, supervisors need to be aware of the importance of interpersonal issues. Their attitude and communication will greatly affect the injured worker’s desire and effort to return to work as soon as possible. They need to be provided with specific instructions on how and what to communicate to employees and to treat everyone in a professional manner, regardless of their opinion of the employee.

Most importantly, for supervisors to look beyond their immediate need to get the work produced and grasp the bigger picture, upper management must make RTW part of the company culture and provide the necessary support when an incident becomes more problematic than the supervisor can handle.