Are you happy with your working relationships?

Robert Hughes

Workers' Comp has a high staff turnaround, so a working relationship still great after 11 years is worth attention.

There’s a lot to be said for a good working relationship. Like all relationships, when they’re at their best the challenges work and life throw at us seem that little bit easier. In return to work a good working relationship often means the difference between a successful case and one that ends up in court.

High staff turnover rates, which make forming great working relationships very difficult, is a problem in return to work, which puts Meredith Russell’s situation in the ‘unusual’, even ‘extraordinary’, category.

Since 1998 Ms Russell, manager of the human resources section within Queensland local council, has worked with the same case manager and claims officer. RTWMatters spoke with her to about the secrets of a long working relationship.

“It’s pretty remarkable when you think in 11 years it’s been the same two people that I’ve dealt with,” she said, listing communication as one of the biggest factors of the relationship. Ms Russell, has always been able to contact her case and claims officer for a chat about a case – and vice versa.

“We’ve built up a very good relationship. It’s got to the stage where if I’m not sure about something I can ring and talk to them,” she said, remembering in earlier years on the job the great benefits of having colleagues she could bounce ideas off and speak to for advice.

Today, while their approaches might sometimes differ, they’ve learnt to appreciate each other’s point of view. “From the insurance side of things they view things differently from the way I do as an HR person; but we manage to meet in the middle. We tend to come up with a fairly balanced approach to most of our claims…it’s just made life so much easier.”

Add compromise to communication, and we are a little closer to understanding the inner working of such a successful relationship.

It’s difficult to retain case and claims staff in the workers’ compensation industry because the work is often process-driven and, in part due to a distance from claimants, unrewarding. Ms Russell expands on this: “When we have a successful outcome I [as an employer] know the person is back at work and back in their pre-injury position – and that’s generally 98% of our cases – whereas [the case manager and claims officer] just do claim after claim after claim and don’t really get to know the people. They might talk to them on the phone, but they don’t know them the way I do,” she said. “I don’t think they get that sense of closure, whereas I do,” she said, explaining that she can see and be directly involved with an employee who goes back to their pre-injury duties, unlike the case manager and claims officer.

Despite this, the seriousness and dedication with which they approach the job is evidenced by the case manager and claims officer staying on the job for more than a decade. Ms Russell’s claims manager will even travel upstate to “sit down with me and the claimant and a third person to actually go through what’s happening [with a particular case], which I thought was amazing; I was really touched that he would go to that extend and to that much trouble – the fact that we’ve got that relationship that he cares enough about our organisation and me so that he’s coming up to explain his reasoning rather than letting this person get a letter and work it out for themselves or ask me how to work it out.”

She puts the high return to work rate down to her staff enjoying their jobs, efficient management of claims, and local government Work Care managing claims and making decisions very quickly and being very supportive – both to Ms Russell and to her employees. “I think also because we’ve got an aging workforce – it’s hard to get good experienced people up here so we’re keen to keep them so we’ll do whatever we can for them.”

She considers herself fortunate that the two have remained. She speaks with her case manager three to four times weekly, and her claims officer at least once a month. In a job where relationships count for so much, scenarios like Ms Russell’s should be – though sadly aren’t – the norm.

[The personal views expressed in this article are Meredith Russell's and are not necessarily the views of Cassowary Coast Regional Council or Local Government Work Care.]

Published 11 May, 2009