Communicating with "The System"

Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson and Gabrielle Lis

Workers struggle to listen and be heard. How does this affect them?

When we asked Rosemary McKenzie-Ferguson, onetime injured worker and founder of the Work Injured Resource Connection, what aspect of the WorkCover system caused the most problems for workers, her answer was unhesitating and firm. Communication.

From the worker’s perspective, communicating with “the system” can present three main difficulties:

  1. It is often difficult to know who to contact and, once you have identified the correct person, to maintain regular contact with them;
  2. Workers – especially “blue singlet” workers – don’t usually speak medical, legal or industry jargon, so a lot of what is written and said is alienating and means little to them; and
  3. There is a lack of supportive and personal content in communications.

Below, we discuss each of these potential problems in more depth, explaining the impact each may have on the worker.

“What? My case manager has changed again...?”

Not knowing who to contact with a query or problem can be frustrating and stressful.

According to Rosemary, “You can ring your case manager and be told that he or she is in a meeting, in training, on a flexi day, no longer works there, is no longer your case manager, is out at lunch, or has gone home with a toothache. Whoever answers the phone says I’ll get someone to get back to you as soon as I can, or as soon as your case manager returns, or we appoint a new case manager, but that can be a week to 10 days before someone remembers, “Oh, I was supposed to return a call.”

“In the meantime, a whole lot of things that you needed information about have escalated in your mind. It may not actually have escalated at all, in reality, but in your mind it has escalated to Mount Everest proportions. You start to get to the point where you think, “If I ring them again they’re going to think that I’m paranoid.” So you don’t ring and instead you fret some more.  Or you go ahead and start a physio program or gym program in the belief that the system will pay for it, and then all of a sudden you find out that they were never going to approve it: you’ve signed up for a $500 gym program and they’re not going to pay for it.”

Being injured or ill can make you feel out of your depth: difficulties making and maintaining contact with the right people only increases this feeling. As Rosemary points out, there are also practical disadvantages, including possible delays in receiving medical treatment, which may impact poorly on both morale and recovery.

I might be nodding along, but that doesn’t mean I get it.

More often than not, injured workers don’t speak medical, legal or OHS / RTW jargon, yet the information they receive is usually written by – and seemingly for – those who speak such jargon fluently. From alienating acronyms to industry shorthand, the use of jargon lessens worker’s opportunities to have their say and compromises their capacity to comprehend the situation they are in.

“The letters that come out to injured workers are still very legalistic. They do always attach to them (at least in South Australia) the sections of the act that they are talking about, but if you’re a blue singlet worker, that isn’t necessarily much help. Or you might be a migrant and have a good understanding of the spoken word but not the written word, you’re not going to read it, you’re not going to understand it.

“More often than not, you’re not going to ring them and say, “Can you please explain it to me?” because you’re not going to want to show your ignorance or embarrass yourself by saying, “I don’t get it.” So perhaps instead you ignore it. Because it’s saying nothing that you understand you just ignore it and you don’t tell anybody about it, and before you know it, whatever that letter is about is a time bomb that’s going to blow up and you haven’t been able to control it.”

Another potential consequence of jargon-filled communications is that workers may agree to something without understanding what it is that they’ve agreed to – and this is bound to cause problems for all parties down the track.

But I’m a person, not an LTI...

A worker in the workers’ comp and return to work system is surrounded by what Rosemary calls professional strangers. The only reason that these people have any connection to the person is because of the workplace injury.

Professional strangers are often busy and stressed themselves and their communication style may be short sharp and to-the-point. To a worker already struggling with the physical and emotional difficulties associated with injury and illness, such communications may come across as impersonal, abrupt and rude.

Rosemary believes that, “There’s nothing in any of the communications that is supportive. Even the rehabs talk in a manner that is less than personal. The one thing that injured workers want is to know that they are first and foremost a person. They’re not a claim number, they’re not a file, they’re not anything the system makes them out to be, they are a person.”


From the workers point of view, communication would be markedly improved by:

  • Having a reliable and consistent point of contact for workers;
  • Using appropriate language, to ensure that genuine communication takes place; and
  • Ensuring that the human side of communication is not neglected.

Published 12 October, 2009 | Updated 12 February, 2013