Your employee was just injured at work. The worker is in pain, cannot perform regular job duties, and is unsure how quickly he or she can return to work. The mortgage, medical care, and child’s tuition payments are due next month. It is a vulnerable time, with substantial uncertainty involved.
When a football player goes down on the field and is carried off, the crowd applauds in support of the player, and the player often returns a smile. When a worker is injured on the job, what happens at the workplace before and after the injury can affect the costs incurred by the employer and the outcome achieved by the injured worker.
Twelve new state studies from the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) aim to help CFOs and other stakeholders identify ways they can improve the treatment and communication an injured worker receives after an injury, leading to better outcomes at lower costs.
The studies are based on interviews with 4,800 injured workers from across 12 states who suffered a workplace injury in 2010 and 2011 and received workers’ compensation income benefits. The 12 states were Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The surveys were conducted during February through June in 2013 and 2014—on average, about three years after these workers sustained their injuries.
The research found that a worker’s fear of being fired after an injury had a large and pervasive effect on costs and worker outcomes, like when the worker returns to work. The fear of being fired may arise out of the relationship between the worker and the supervisor being one of high or low trust. If the relationship is low trust, the worker is more likely to fear firing when injured.
To describe the level of trust or mistrust in the work relationship, workers were asked to agree with the statement “I was concerned that I would be fired or laid off.” Workers were given four possible answers—strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, and strongly disagree. Depending on the state, 18% to 33% of workers strongly agreed that they feared being fired when injured.
Overall, workers who were strongly concerned about being fired after the injury experienced poorer return-to-work outcomes than workers without such concerns. Across all 12 states, 23% of those concerned about being fired reported that they were not working at the time of the interview—double the rate observed for workers without such concerns. The following are other findings from workers who were strongly concerned about being fired.
What do these findings really signify? The following are some alternative possibilities:
This isn’t the first time we looked at trust as it relates to workers’ compensation. A study we did several years ago on attorney involvement, which was covered by CFO, looked at why injured workers hired attorneys. The character of the employment relationship, for example, was a factor for the 23% who strongly agreed that they hired attorneys because they feared being fired or laid off. Fifteen percent also strongly agreed that they needed attorneys because their employer could perceive their claims as illegitimate.
WCRI reached out to Lisa Healy, who is a manager of claims at AGL Resources, a natural gas-only distribution company in the United States. She told us that AGL has been very successful in managing and reducing its workers’ compensation costs. In part, she accounts this success to practices in which employees in the organization feel engaged with and trusting of the company. The following are five things she told us the company is doing to facilitate trust within the organization:
Our research may be an important first step in realizing how important trust is between employee and employer in ensuring good outcomes when the employee is injured on the job. But employers can act now, in some of the ways AGL Resources has demonstrated, to improve trust while lowering their workers’ compensation costs. The keys are early intervention, putting safety first, effective return-to-work programs, and access to medical care.
Richard A. Victor is president and CEO of the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), an independent, not-for-profit research organization based in Cambridge.