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It pays to be nice: Employer’s treatment of injured worker more important than satisfaction with health care in Return-to-Work programs

If the following question were posed to an injured employee, how does the response affect your bottom line:

“Overall, how satisfied are you with the way your employer has treated you following your injury? Would you say you are very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied or very dissatisfied?”

While most employers recognize the importance of this question, few fully understand the impact that the answer can have on their Workers’ Compensation costs. A recent article, It Pays to be Nice: Employer-Worker Relationships and the Management of Back Pain Claims, by Richard Butler, PhD, William Johnson, PhD and Pierre Cote, D.C., PhD examined the effects of workers’ satisfaction with their employers’ response to a Workers’ Compensation back claim over a 12 month period and compared it to the effects of their satisfaction with health care on post-onset patterns of employment.

The focus on back pain is relevant because of the frequency of the problem and because, for many workers, back pain follows an episodic course of periods of recovery and employment interspersed with periods of pain and work absence.

The results: Workers’ satisfaction with their employers’ behavior has a much larger impact on employment stability than does their satisfaction with health care. The implications of this finding for employers are significant:

1. Cost savings: reduction in number of lost time claims
The study finds that workers who are satisfied with employer’s response are more likely to have a medical only claim (64% versus 56%) than those who are dissatisfied. Also, for those workers who do have at least one lost time claim there is a lower likelihood of multiple episodes of injury-related absences. Only 32% of those satisfied with their employer’s response end up with multiple episodes of injury related absences whereas 58% of those dissatisfied with their employer’s response end up with multiple absences.

2. The workplace response is key
Even companies with strong return-to-work programs can be challenged by seemingly conflicting objectives and adversarial attitudes. While employers and employees benefit from maintaining a skilled workforce, reduced stress on co-workers who are expected to cover for absences, and improved employee/management relationships where workers have a greater sense of security and commitment, there are concerns about how productivity is affected by reintegrating workers who are not yet “100%” and in some cases injured workers are treated with suspicion as to the legitimacy of their claims.

It’s easy to understand this conflict. The pressures and frustrations created by an injured worker on productivity and work flow are immediate. Although responding in the best interests of the employee will ultimately benefit the company, it can be difficult to keep the long-term goals in focus, with the immediate demands of production. Unwittingly the company can convey to the injured worker that maximizing profits is the priority and not the well-being of the worker.

Injured workers who feel alienated by the employers’ reaction to their claim will be reluctant to cooperate and may extend the duration of their absence or have more frequent reoccurrences as found in the study by Butler, Johnson and Cote. The bottom line: increased Workers Compensation costs.

3. Supervisors need training
Management and front-line supervisors must establish a relationship of trust with their injured worker. Besides the basics of injury reporting and injury management, supervisors must understand the importance of an empathetic response to injury. If the worker feels needed in the workplace and is motivated to return, the program has a much greater chance of success. Frequent expressions of sincere regard and regular communication with the injured worker help reduce the probability of lengthy lost time.