How managing expectations leads to better return-to-work outcomes
By Dr. Robert Hall, Corporate Medical Director, Helios
Often immediately following a workplace injury, the first question asked by the injured worker is, "When can I go back to work?" Employers, restaurateurs, and franchisees share these sentiments. After all, healthy employees are good for business; however, the path from injury to resuming work duties is not always as smooth or efficient as your ordering process. Managing expectations can be instrumental in helping you and your injured workers avoid bumps, twists, and turns hindering recovery and return to work.
Consider the following scenario: Several weeks after a strain/sprain injury, the physician recommends your injured worker return to modified duty. The injured worker is looking forward to getting back into their work routine. When presented with the plan, as the employer, you are hesitant to the idea out of concern for a potential exacerbation of injury, re-injury, or liability. With the plan rejected, the physician might be frustrated, your injured worker is potentially defeated, not to mention still on temporary total disability (TTD) for several more weeks. In this situation, each party had different expectations of how the claim should progress.
A very different outcome might have occurred had the process and expectations been managed differently. A total (100 percent) recovery may not be attainable in all cases; however, this does not necessarily mean your injured worker is unable to work in some capacity. Light or modified duty may be an appropriate, safe, and welcomed option. This involves having conversations with the physician to help level-set expectations and open the door to constructing a return-to-work plan that is acceptable to everyone involved.
It is also important to keep in mind that physicians are experts in care — not in the operation of restaurants. By thoroughly explaining an employee’s job requirements, work environment and safety policies to the physician, they can better understand the situation and design a treatment plan that is more appropriate (and more effective) for your injured worker, his/her position and your operation. You might consider sharing training videos or other visual aids, for example, with the physician to demonstrate the required job functions. The knowledge gained not only could influence return-to-work considerations, but also may guide future treatment recommendations to assure optimal recovery.
To this point, one such example is as follows: Appreciating the safety sensitivity of the position, the physician may opt not to prescribe an opioid medication, deferring to a less sedating analgesic.
Another tactic to help manage and align expectations between you and your injured worker is to speak of necessary abilities in specific, relatable terms. For example, rather than indicating the requirement to lift five pounds, specify that they will need to lift a five-pound bag of flour. Speak about job requirements in definitive terms directly related to their position and duties to align expectations. Doing so eliminates subjectivity and provides a common point of understanding. People may have differing views on what it means to lift five pounds, but they generally will have similar views on the level of effort required to lift a five-pound bag of flour.
It is also imperative that the treatment, and ultimately the return-to-work plan, comprehensively address the injured worker’s physical and psychological impairments. For example, strain, sprain, fracture or dislocations disrupt coordination. Head injuries affect concentration, memory, and attention span. Amputations can disrupt gait and balance. There can also be post-traumatic stress, depression, fear of re-injury, worry and other emotions with which to contend. A focus on the injured worker’s progress towards an improvement in function may then be a more realistic goal.
Yet, another important consideration when managing expectations associated with return-to-work is the break period. How many consecutive hours may your injured employee safely work before a break is required? When the break occurs, what does it consist of? Are there stretches or exercises that need to be done? Does it require sitting or resting? In addition, what is the medication therapy regimen? Are there any special needs associated with it to promote compliance? For instance, your injured worker might need to take their medicine with food or require a safe place to store their medication(s) while they are working.
Based on their experiences, physicians, employers, claims professionals and injured workers each carry preconceptions and expectations when it comes to how claims should progress. Managing expectations using open communication about what, when and how your injured worker may return to work benefits you, your injured worker, and your operation as a whole.