Communication with Injured Employees Speeds Return to Work

May 4, 2001
Employers need to do a better job of addressing employees' financial and medical worries following an injury or illness in order to speed employees' return-to-work, according to two disability management consultants.

When it comes to employees and their disabling injuries and illnesses, one size does not fit all for employers concerned about getting those employees back on the job without a drop-of in morale.

According to a survey sponsored by Intracorp, a national health care and disability management solutions provider in Philadelphia, segments of employees have different concerns and need specialized communications based on their medical conditions, financial vulnerability, workplace knowledge, length of absence, and more.

The survey shows it makes a significant difference whether the injury or illness is work-related or not.

"While the data doesn''t draw a straight line between customized communication addressing specific employee concerns and return-to-work, we''re convinced that frequently there is linkage," said Fred Scardellette, vice president of Disability Management product development and marketing for Intracorp. "This is the third in a series of studies that have demonstrated the continuing need for more and better communication with injured and ill employees."

Scardellette continued, "Since our first survey was conducted in 1994, employee awareness of disability procedures has increased, but that is not enough. Our latest survey shows that following an injury or the onset of illness, employees also express a need to talk about their finances, how to recover more quickly and, as absences extend, job security."

Intracorp co-sponsored the survey, conducted by the Gallup Organization, along with CIGNA IntegratedCare, which offers disability benefits products and services.

What Does the Survey Mean?

"Overall, survey results suggest that employers should emphasize to supervisors and human resource professionals the importance of more frequent conversation with employees about their disability benefits before and after injuries and illnesses," said Scardellette. "Injured or ill employees are not only concerned about their benefits but also about their health and their jobs. The survey documents interest, for instance, in more information about speeding up recovery."

Among employees who missed work due to an occupational injury or illness, 63 percent said that financial concerns had influenced their return to work, according to survey data. Work concerns were cited as influential in their return by 62 percent.

Since the factors that most influence return to work -- concerns about finances, medical conditions and work -- vary in their importance among employees, Intracorp recommends tailoring the nature, timing and extent of communication to those segments.

For instance, it was found that less tenured and less-educated employees are more prone to work-related injuries and illnesses. Not surprisingly, when injured or ill, their financial concerns are greater than those of other segments.

"While there is need for improvement all around, we found that employees with non-occupational injuries and illnesses indicated they felt better informed and more satisfied with the disability process than their occupational counterparts," said Eric Reisenwitz, senior vice president, CIGNA IntegratedCare.

For workers who experienced an occupational injury or illness, 45 percent who received 100 percent of their pre-disability income reported financial concern, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, for workers who experienced a non-occupational injury or illness, 36 percent who received 100 percent of their pre-disability income reported financial concerns.

"From an employer point of view, ongoing disparity can create employee discontent," said Scardellette. "We recommend more aggressive attention to information and counseling needs especially for occupational injuries and illnesses. It makes sense to customize communication for those workers to help minimize their concerns."

Certain discussions appear to directly promote return to work. According to the survey, when employees feel that their disability benefits needs are not met, or that they are not satisfied with their employer''s treatment of them during their disability, they miss more days of work, in some cases twice as much as their more satisfied counterparts.

When supervisors, human resource staff or case workers talk repeatedly with employees who are losing time from work, they are more likely to identify accommodations that speed up return, including flextime and modified work duties.

This problem-solving also helps employees feel more satisfied and prepared when they get back to the job, according to the survey.

Scardellette said employers should emphasize communications to employees who experience an occupational illness (as opposed to an injury), as well as any employees out for extended periods of time because these groups often express a higher degree of uncertainty about their disability benefits.

"Employers need to do a better job of addressing employees'' financial and medical worries as soon as they become injured or ill," said Scardellette. "The number of employees worried about these issues, and how they are going to earn a living after an incident, has remained high for several years since the study has been conducted. It will be interesting to see how these numbers will change in the future."

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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