By Hattie E. James
In the business world, few phrases carry as much emotional baggage as “workers’ compensation.” Those who receive it, like most people who file personal injury claims, are often stereotyped as “lazy” or “greedy.” In an ongoing effort to detect fraud, many companies go to extensive lengths to scrutinize such claims. It’s enough to make an employee feel guilty for getting injured on the job.
With the stress of liability weighing on their shoulders, employers can get into the habit of thinking of workers’ compensation as “dirty words.” Worse, entrepreneurs may get into the mindset that injured employees are out to scam them, as though a rising epidemic of dishonesty will threaten to drill an endless pit in their bottom line.
However, as noted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of nonfatal workplace injuries has been on a steady decline over the last decade. The number of cases of employee fraud have actually gone down over the years. For the most part, workers’ compensation is working as it was intended: as a protection for employees.
One statistic that has increased, however, is the number of lawsuits concerning retaliatory actions made by employers against employees who filed workers’ comp claims. Workers’ compensation isn’t a threat to businesses; in fact, it protects them. In the past, employees had to sue employers to receive compensation for injuries. Workers’ compensation laws replace legal liability with no-fault insurance. Taking a hostile approach to these claims is a fruitless endeavor. Overly reactionary, aggressive workplaces can cost businesses millions of dollars by illegally retaliating against those who file claims.
Say “no” to retaliation
Filing for workers’ compensation can be a daunting proposition. The fear of retaliation — of being incessantly scrutinized, bullied, and even ostracized — can make employees reticent to even file a claim in the first place.
This fear is a product of the work of (perhaps unreasonably) enthusiastic insurers and risk management professionals who often order employees to inform a supervisor when they see signs of workers’ compensation fraud. The natural assumption is, of course, that employers are extremely suspicious of all workers’ compensation cases.
Worse, there are countless stories of business who really did retaliate against employees for filing such claims. Employees who have done so in the past have been excluded from meetings, reassigned to less favorable positions, given suspiciously low performance reviews, and generally pressured to drop a claim. Anecdotes in this vein feed into the idea that filing a claim after being injured on the job is a mistake.
Workers’ compensation is a necessary protection
On the contrary, filing for workers’ compensation is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is doing so an engraved indictment of a business for insufficient safety measures. Employees and employers in the U.S. need to dispel the myths surrounding it. Most employees who file for compensation are not “faking it,” and even the most prepared business owner can’t safeguard their employees against every possible injury. Workers’ comp is merely a protection; it ensures that an employee’s livelihood cannot be endangered while on the job.
And, fortunately for employees in the States, this protection carries on for as long as their medical concerns do. For certain injuries or complications, they can continue to collect workers’ compensation. For example, look at the case of a nurse in Pennsylvania who was exposed to the herpes simplex virus while at work. In 2007, complications from the virus led to blindness in her left eye. Although she left employment with the hospital in 1985, she continues to receive workers’ compensation. While a complex legal battle ensued over her right to receive this compensation, the Workers’ Compensation Act helped protect her as intended.
Workers’ comp and corporate social responsibility
If a workplace creates an atmosphere of fear surrounding workers’ compensation, they dissuade employees from filing such claims. And, of course, if an employee fails to seek medical attention, they may exacerbate their injury or condition. A business cannot accurately claim to care about its employees if it promotes such behavior — intentionally or otherwise.
This means that businesses should adopt a positive mindset in regards to workplace safety. Instead of calling for employees to report on possible workers’ comp fraud, they should have employees practice this level of vigilance when it comes to reporting potential workplace safety hazards. Simply put, better work environments mean better productivity. Rather than creating a toxic work environment by ostracizing employees who dare to file a claim, they should show compassion by addressing safety issues and encouraging employees to be open about their experiences while on the job.
Corporate social responsibility also entails educating employees about risks in the workplace and enforcing safety protocols. For example, in the case detailed above, a well-informed risk management professional might advise the employer to strengthen their focus on educating nurses about the occupational hazards of working around illnesses.
Furthermore, the hospital could adopt programs to reduce stress, thereby reducing the number of workplace injuries to begin with. Some hospital administrations have found creative ways to combat stress. For instance, Rush University Medical center offers a program called “Pet Pause,” which consists of free animal therapy sessions with specially trained dogs. It has had a measurable effect on reducing stress, including decreased blood pressure and lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels. Measures like this not only demonstrate to employees that management legitimately cares about them, but it can also reduce claims. Alleviating stress reduces mental and emotional injuries, which could otherwise lead to claims in regards to sleep disorders, panic attacks and depression.
For the benefit of everyone in the workplace, misinformation about workers’ compensation needs to end. Instead of creating fear about filing claims, businesses should demonstrate care and understanding. Filing a claim after an injury is not a hostile act on the part of the employee, and it is rarely done fraudulently. To foster a more positive relationship between employers and employees going forward, we need to drop the emotional weight connected to the phrase “workers’ compensation.”
Hattie E. James, MBA, is a writer and researcher.