Dealing with the victim mentality

Dr Mary Wyatt

In response to a reader's questions, our resident Occ Phys explains how to encourage a proactive approach to return to work.

We asked some of our readers to tell us about the issues they deal with on a day to day basis. This is one in a series dealing with common challenges:

“One of the hardest things I deal with is employees who develop a victim mentality.”

A common theme for employers is the difficulty of claimants becoming victims and then blaming others for their predicament. This scenario isn’t confined to just those readers who have responded; we have heard it regularly over the years. Blame and feelings of victimisation are an increasingly common issue the longer employees have been within the system.

How do people become victims?

Injured employees consider themselves controlled by circumstances. They typically deal with a situation by reacting, rather than being proactive.

Why does it happen?

Many things can contribute to such an approach. Becoming a victim is more likely to occur to people with work related injuries. Because the system regularly obliges individuals to comply with requirements, it also tends to foster a reactive approach in the individual. People don’t realise they can be proactive.

Individuals find it hard to make decisions about their situation when they don’t understand the path ahead of them. They can feel inundated and overwhelmed by needing to obtain certificates, fill out a claim form, their pay rates suddenly changing, being advised to do different duties, being out of their normal work group or having treatment they don’t understand.

With all these things happening it’s not surprising they don’t feel responsible for their situation. Others are telling them what they have to do to comply with the system and subsequently many people expect the system will deal with all of the issues at hand. And when the system doesn’t take care of everything, it’s not a big jump for them to blame those around them.

How do you recognise reactive behaviour?

Listen out for phrases like:

  • “I have to”;
  • “I’m not sure I can“; and
  • “I’ll have to ask my doctor if I can come back to work“.

When people respond reactively rather than proactively they tend to focus on things they cannot change, rather than those they can.

Their behaviour may include:

  • Not initiating calls;
  • Not asking questions;
  • Having little input into return to work duties; or
  • Not reporting problems with return to work tasks when they occur.
How can proactive behaviour be fostered?
  • Identify the issue early. A simple conversation with the worker is usually enough to get them back on the right track. If you wait until the person is well entrenched in a victim role it’s very difficult to change their approach and the situation.
  • Inform the person about the situation they face. This tells them they are an important part of their case and return to work. Understanding their situation allows a person to plan, be involved and understand where boundaries lie between what they must do (i.e. have no choice) and what they can do (i.e. where they do have a choice).
  • Let them know that their input is important, appreciated and is likely to improve their overall situation. Encourage them to influence what they can and to be an active participant in decision-making. Let them know that they still need to work within the system, but they have rights within that system, as well as responsibilities. When they are clear about both, they are empowered to be active.
  • Let them know if they are becoming reactive rather than proactive. Remind them of the difficulties for them and their morale if they are passive, and how an active approach on their part is likely to lead others to support them.
  • Encourage family input in a long-term case. An employee who has the support of their spouse In return to work is less likely to experience being a victim of case circumstances.
And what about your systems?

If you feel you are dealing with a few employees who have victim mentalities, it’s worth having a look at your organisation’s systems. Are your employees being empowered? Are policies and procedures regarding return to work available and clear; are supervisors engaged? Can you smell something off with the culture? Are employees being alienated?

Our tools section contains helpful employee handouts—there is a short and long version. The handouts can be modified for your individual organisation and given to the employee. They provide a solid start to letting the employee know about their situation.

Finally, how are you going? Are you feeling like a victim of the victims? If so, what of the above applies to you? Make sure you check in with colleagues who can help you and offer a refreshing perspective on the challenging role of coordinating return to work.