We know the single greatest roadblock to timely work injury recovery and controlling claim costs. And it’s not overpriced care, or doubtful medical provider quality or even litigation. It is the negative impact of personal expectations, behaviors and predicaments that can come with the injured worker or can grow out of work injury.
This suite of roadblocks is classified as “psychosocial” issues – issues that claims leaders now rank as the No. 1 barrier to successful claim outcomes, according to Rising Medical Solutions’ 2016 Workers’ Compensation Benchmarking Study survey.
Psychosocial roadblocks drive up claim costs far more than catastrophic claims, mostly due to delayed recovery, and claims executives told us they occur regardless of the nature of injury. In other words, one cannot predict from medical data the presence of a psychosocial issue; one has to listen to the injured worker with a fresh mind.
See also: Power of ‘Claims Advocacy’
It’s likely no coincidence that, while the industry has progressively paid more attention to psychosocial issues this past decade, there’s also been a shift toward advocacy-based claims models over adversarial, compliance- and task-based processing styles. Simply put, advocacy models – which treat the worker as a whole person – are better equipped to control or eliminate psychosocial factors during recovery. According to the 2016 Benchmarking Study survey, claims advocacy and greater training in communication and soft skills, like empathy, are associated with higher-performing claims organizations.
Psychosocial – What It Is, What It Is Not
The Hartford’s medical director, Dr. Marcos Iglesias, says that the “psych” part does not mean psychiatric issues, such as schizophrenia, personality disorders or major depressive disorders. Instead, he points out, “We are talking about behavioral issues, the way we think, feel and act. An example is fear of physical movement, as it may worsen one’s impairment or cause pain, or fear of judgment by coworkers.”
The Hartford’s text mining has found the presence of “fear” in claim notes was predictive of poor outcomes. Similar findings were recently cited by both Lockton (“Leading with Empathy: How Data Analytics Uncovered Claimants’ Fears”) and the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (“Predictors of Worker Outcomes”).
Emotional distress, such as catastrophic reaction to pain and activity avoidance, is predictive of poor outcomes. Other conditions, behaviors and predicaments include obesity, hard feelings about coworkers, troubled home life, the lack of temporary modified work assignments, limited English proficiency and – most commonly noted – poor coping skills. Additionally, being out of work can lead to increased rates of smoking, alcohol abuse, illicit drug use, risky sexual behavior and suicide.
When peeling back the psychosocial onion, one can see how adversarial, compliance- and task-driven claim styles are 1) ill-suited for addressing fears, beliefs, perceptions and poor coping skills and 2) less likely to effectively address these roadblocks due to the disruption they pose to workflows and task timelines.
Screening and the One Big Question
Albertsons, with more than 285,000 employees in retail food and related businesses, screens injured workers for psychosocial comorbidities. To ensure workers are comfortable and honest, the company enlists a third-party telephonic triage firm to perform screenings. “It’s voluntary and confidential in details, with only a summary score shared with claims adjusters and case managers,” says Denise Algire, the company’s director of risk initiatives and national medical director.
At The Hartford, Iglesias says claims adjusters ask one very important question of the injured worker, “Jim, when do you expect to return to work?” Any answer of less than 10 days indicates that the worker has good coping skills and that the risk of delayed recovery is low. That kind of answer is a positive flag for timely recovery. If the worker answers with a longer duration, the adjuster explores why the worker believes recovery will be more difficult. For example, the injured worker may identify a barrier of which the adjuster is unaware: His car may have been totaled in an accident. This lack of transportation, and not the injury, may be the return-to-work barrier.
It Takes a Village
Trecia Sigle, Nationwide Insurance’s new associate vice president of workers’ compensation claims, is building a specialized team to address psychosocial roadblocks. Nationwide’s intake process will consist of a combination of manual scoring and predictive modeling, and then adjusters will refer certain workers to specialists with the “right skill set.”
Albertsons invites screened injured workers to receive specialist intervention, usually performed by a network of psychologists who provide health coaching consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles. This intervention method is short in duration and focuses on active problem-solving with the patient. The Hartford also transfers cases with important psychosocial issues to a specialist team, selected for their listening, empathy, communication skills and past claims experience.
Emotional Intelligence – Can It Be Learned?
Industry professionals are of mixed minds about how and if frontline claims adjusters can improve their interpersonal skills – sometimes called “emotional intelligence” – through training. These soft skills include customer service, communication, critical thinking, active listening and empathy. Experts interviewed agree that some claims adjusters have innately better soft skills. But they also concur that training and coaching can only enhance these skills among claims staff.
See also: The 2 Types of Claims Managers
Pamela Highsmith-Johnson, national director of case management at CNA, says the insurer introduced a “trusted adviser” training program for all employees who come into contact with injured workers. Small groups use role-playing and share ideas. An online training component is also included.
Advocacy – The Missing Link to Recovery
Could it be that advocacy – treating the injured worker as a whole person and customer at the center of a claim – is the “missing link” for many existing claim practices to work, or work better? Whether for psychosocial issues or other barriers, organizations like The Hartford, Nationwide, CNA and Albertsons are paving the road to a more effective approach for overcoming pervasive barriers to recovery. Participants in the 2016 Workers’ Compensation Benchmarking Study confirm that higher-performing claims organizations are taking this road.
The coming 2017 study will continue to survey claims leaders on advocacy topics. A copy of that report may be pre-ordered here.