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Now that I think of it, empathy counts in dollars and cents

As you begin reading this article, you may think it’s pro-worker, or you may not — but if you do, bear with me to the end. I believe it takes all of us — employers, employees, medical professionals, vocational rehabilitation counselors, adjusters — and yes, even the lawyers — to make the workers’ compensation system in our state work well for employers and employees. People who work with workers’ compensation on a daily basis are tired of hearing me harp on our “workers’ compensation family” but that is what we are. A family — a community of interests — tasked with providing compensation for injured workers. A community of interests may sound esoteric, but a community of interests is idiomatic of empathy. And empathy counts in dollars and cents. And thinking about empathy and the community of interests that you and your employees share may help you, as employers, and may save (and make) you some money.

Workers’ compensation has become a “dirty word” in the business community. There are many reasons. First and foremost, premiums are on the rise. A second reason is the genuine belief that many workers’ compensation injuries are not injuries at all but frauds perpetrated by employees on their employers. Such a generalization is unfair, of course, as is any stereotype, but as healthcare costs rise and premium dollars rise, business is obligated to take a hard look at the system.

When considering the costs of the system, employers may forget that the Workers’ Compensation Act is a trade — a bargain between labor and employment. Laborers get a “sure” measure of indemnity and necessary medical treatment for any type of on the job accident, injury or death; employers get a reprieve from any tort lawsuit that could be filed against them because of negligence in the work place that caused or contributed to the injury. Moreover, many employers forget that the goal of the workers’ compensation act is to return injured employees to vocational opportunity.

In my dozen years at the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission, I have found that it is often difficult to return the worker to vocational opportunity, particularly at the pre-injury employer. I’m not sure why, but I have some ideas, two to be exact. The first is the failure of the worker’s supervisor to convey to the worker during the employment relationship — and prior to the injury — that the worker is important to the business. The second is the failure of human resources personnel to convey to the worker — subsequent to the injury — that the worker is important. Each of these issues is susceptible of remedy with just a little change in approach — call it empathy.

Relationships matter

As for the pre-injury issue, the literature in the United States has repeatedly proven that the most important factor in return-to-work is the injured employee’s relationship with her supervisor. If it’s a good one, the employee is likely to return to work: the better the relationship, the quicker the return. The converse is true, too: the worse the relationship, the less likely the employee is motivated to return to work.

For the post-injury issue, one of the quickest ways for the relationship between the injured employee and the employer to go south during the recovery process is a conception in the mind of the employee that the employer doesn’t care. “They haven’t even called to check on me” is something I’ve often heard. Failure to notice (or at least appear to notice) the injured employee’s fate, hardships or absence from the workplace is death knell to opportunities to return the employee to work after recovery.

Interestingly, I find that both of these problems can be solved with just a little empathy.

Empathy is, for the most part, free. A good relationship between a worker and a supervisor and a few phone calls and visits from the supervisor and the HR professional during the worker’s recovery will go a long way to return the injured worker to vocational opportunity expeditiously and with a good attitude. I repeatedly tell HR professionals: “You don’t have to LIKE these people; you just have to ACT LIKE you LIKE them!” Of course, its ok to like them, too. As business men and women, we often posit that our “people” are our “greatest resource”. If that’s so, conveying that message to our employees can be a powerful tool and can save an employer a bundle in rehiring and retraining costs.

Once upon a time…

A quick, true story illustrates my point.

Once upon a time there was a small town in rural Northeast Mississippi which had a small manufacturing company. This company historically had about one lost-time injury per month: usually nothing catastrophic — no amputations or paralysis — just run-of-the-mill work injuries: back strains, cuts, carpal tunnel syndrome, the usual. The company’s HR director attended an educational seminar where I gave my “You don’t have to LIKE these people; you just have to ACT LIKE you LIKE them!” speech. Three years later, I met the HR director and he said he wanted to thank me for my advice. After attending the seminar, he decided to see if the advice was any good. He asked his boss to let him add a little money to his annual budget (less than $250) in order to buy a fruit basket from the local Big Star Supermarket for each employee who was injured in the coming year. The boss looked at him like he was crazy, so he explained that he had come up with the idea after hearing me speak. I don’t think that my credentials impressed the boss one bit, but since $20 times 12 is not all that much money, the boss said: “Can’t hurt!” and this “scientific experiment” had begun. Thereafter, the HR director bought a fruit basket and delivered it himself to the home or hospital room of each injured employee. He told me that after three years and 37 lost-time injuries, all injured employees were back at work and not one had chosen to litigate the injury as a workers’ compensation claim. The money for the fruit baskets stayed in the budget, and the HR director added to his weekly routine timely phone calls to check on the injured worker.

The moral to the story: every one wants to be important, wanted, needed, cared about. Your company has an investment in the training and experience of the injured worker, and a tiny expenditure of time and money will help insure a speedy return to work. When workers return, they will know that they are important to you and will act accordingly.

For you skeptics, remember that loss of wage earning capacity is a vital aspect in the determination of a workers’ compensation permanent disability award, whether the injury be to the body as a whole or a scheduled member. An employee who is back at work earning the same wage as was earned pre-injury has, in most cases, not lost “wage earning capacity” and will not be entitled to a large award (or maybe any award) as the employee who has not returned to work. So, if you are not inclined to empathy, then consider the ramifications of return-to-work on your next year’s workers’ compensation audit.

Empathy counts.

Lydia Quarles, an attorney, serves as commissioner of the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission. Her e-mail address is lydia@lquarles.com.

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