Getting the workplace onside

Dr Mary Wyatt

A guide to help insurance case managers, RTW Coordinators and rehabilitation providers motivate immediate supervisors and senior managers to better manage work injury.

When return to work coordinators, case managers and rehabilitation professionals are pedaling hard and not achieving the results they want and expect, issues in the workplace are often to blame. (For the rest of the article, I’ll refer to all these RTW professionals under the catch-all term of ‘case managers’.)

Case managers can streamline their work and improve results by having fully engaged supervisors and managers. Of course that is easier said than done but that is our challenge.

Engaging the supervisor and the managers is critical to achieving a positive, collaborative and sustainable RTW outcome. Supervisors play that pivotal role in the success of a worker’s return to work and without their involvement it results in a recipe for failure. But supervisors don’t work in a vacuum: the managers of supervisors set the tone. If you can involve and influence senior managers, they will then influence the direct supervisors and line managers and make your job so much easier as well as helping you help the injured worker return to work.

Why supervisors struggle with injury management

Many supervisors are really frustrated when it comes to return to work and that whole process. Generally, across the board, there is an inconsistency when dealing with injured employees and their return to work.

Commonly many supervisors feel unhappy about dealing with the return to work component. They are uncertain they are about handling the situation and feel out of their depth when it comes to communicating about personal issues with the worker.

Supervisors often feel frustrated in trying to balance the worker’s needs, productivity, time pressures as well as management expectations. They often feel helpless, confused, sometimes even angry or frustrated – and this results in poor outcomes and negative experiences when dealing with return to work.

Supervisors also do not necessarily understand what is expected of them in their role. There was a great study in America looking at supervisor expectations versus employee expectations of what a supervisor should do when a worker is coming back to work. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in common between the two groups.

Workers had expectations such as their needs would be accommodated, there would be good communication, the supervisor would be empathic, would sort out their pay issues, would speak with their medical providers, would involve co-workers, etc.

And yet, when supervisors are asked about their role, they said, “Well, we have to complete out forms and we have to make sure the employee is not dodgy,” and down the track came communicating with employees and involving employees.

We need to let supervisors and managers know what their responsibilities are when it comes to return to work and how you as an organisation can best support them in being constructive with their employees. But the first step in engaging supervisors is identifying what’s in it for them. Why should they care about better managing work injury, from reporting, through modified duties and so on?
Helping supervisors care about RTW

The message to communicate to supervisors is that improving injury management practices will make their life easier in a number of ways.

Firstly, the early support lessens the chance of a complicated claim longer down the track. So it is about investing time early on as opposed to managing and it being far more time consuming later down the track.

Secondly, by having that early approach and then being actively involved, it will result in better team morale. It will also result in trust within the team, greater job satisfaction for them, helping the team will improve team morale and it also improves their career prospects.

Coaching supervisors to do better

If you look at ways how to achieve this as a case manager, think about how you can work with the supervisor on a particular case, coaching them as opposed to managing the return to work purely by yourself.

Meet or talk on a weekly basis for five to ten minutes to identify issues early. Get their feedback and get their support from day one. Also engage the supervisor’s manager. If the supervisor’s manager is on board, they are likely to also provide that direction to the supervisor to let them know it is their responsibility to be partaking in the return to work process.

Talk dollar figures in terms of not managing a case.

Talk about the human factor, the worker’s experience of the successful return to work, how they felt being supported, being offered real suitable duties, having the appropriate support and treatment in a timely manner.

Also talk about how not managing a particular case can also have a negative impact both on the human factor and the costs associated such as premium business costs and productivity.

Let them know that supervisors engaged in return to work report greater job satisfaction and they are seen well by their team for doing the right thing. They will have less claims in their area, less time lost claims and will certainly have an improved team morale and increased productivity as mentioned earlier.

Training supervisors is a key part of that and getting senior managers on board is also a key component. Once you have senior managers onside, advocate for supervisor training in injury management.

Helping senior managers care about RTW

Senior managers are an important group to involve in worker’s compensation and return to work. Many case managers feel that they should not be disturbing senior managers and yet when managers are involved, the whole process works more smoothly and efficiently.

Engaging managers is similar to engaging supervisors – we need to understand what is in it for them. Managers are responsible for costs and running the organisation so if you want to engage managers, it is worthwhile explaining the costs and benefits to them.

It is important to understand that managers have multiple responsibilities and so when we talk to them we need to be clear and concise and we need to talk in facts.

Engaging managers may work best through another person. They might trust the finance person or accountant and you may wish to work through that person. There may be a particular champion within the organisation that you can tap into and either get to communicate to the managers or work with you to communicate with managers.

Use of hard data helps. So you may wish, if your organisation is large enough, to undertake surveys about return to work or undertake specific interviews with people about return to work so you can provide factual information to the managers.

There are four key ways to make the case to managers to be involved with and actively support you in return to work management. The first is to discuss the costs and the benefits. So the cost to a business in worker’s compensation is substantial. For a manufacturing industry it might be for example 4% of payroll. It could be higher, it could be lower.

It is worth working with either your claims agent or insurer, if you are a self-insurer, to identify the costs and to then look at what could be achieved by improving return to work results.

Providing that business case can make a real difference to the manager’s involvement. Talking about the business case involves talking about direct costs such as premium paid each year. But it also requires developing an understanding of the indirect costs: things like recruiting new staff, training up new staff. It could be loss of company reputation particularly in a smaller organisation.

Making the case is supported by discussing the impact of return to work on the rest of the workplace and the rest of the business. So if a workplace has a worker come back to work and they are treated badly, the other co-workers are well aware of that and then become less trusting.

Employee productivity is a lot about discretionary effort. And if employees feel that they or other staff are being treated poorly, they are less likely to work harder and provide that extra discretionary effort. So there is an important workplace culture business case to be made.

The financial costs of corporate reputation loss can also be discussed with managers. There was a very large government organisation that tried to deal with return to work but the way it was implemented was done poorly and employees were up in arms about the way the organisation dealt with them. That ultimately resulted in a Senate inquiry that is obviously a very poor outcome for the organisation with significant reputational damage.

The last approach I recommend is discussing the legal case. When an employee is treated poorly, that employee is more likely to take an adversarial approach. There is more likely to be costs associated such as fines, the legal case is also worth discussing with managers.

RTW-enhancing actions for senior managers

One effective and simple approach is to ask the senior manager or CEO or the business to actually contact the employee initially after injury.

Keep senior managers updated. Let them know about individual employees and how they are progressing. Have straightforward conversations about the costs of an adversarial approaches.

Give relevant, real-world examples, such as: Two injured employees in a department with an unproductive supervisor is going to cost the business X amount in worker’s compensation. It is going to have reputational damage, indirect costs, reduced productivity, it will have an impact on culture, morale. Be straightforward in those conversations.

Let them know about the benefits of a positive return to work environment which on the flipside will result in cost savings, will improve the culture, the morale, increase productivity and is beneficial for the business reputation. These are all ways of improving that interaction with managers.

I have been in some organisations where the CEO has rung the day after the injury and asked after the worker’s wellbeing. It is a call about looking after the worker, not about pressuring them and I tell you word spreads like wildfire.

When the big boss calls a worker on the factory floor as an example, the fact that the boss has called spreads amongst the employees. But it also spreads amongst the supervisors and other managers and they get the message very quickly that the big boss thinks it is important and that can have wonderful ramifications across the organisation.