For Workers’ Comp, 2022 Will Be the Year of the Human Asset

It seems that as the years come and go, each one, for the workers’ compensation industry, ends up being defined by one or two dominant topics. 2015, for example, might have been the year of medical marijuana. 2019 was the year of presumptions. It is no surprise that 2020 was the year of Covid. That topic carried over for 2021, in the form of presumptions for “front line workers” and extended liabilities.

Today there is little doubt that staffing, retention, and workplace structuring are rapidly becoming the issue that will define the year. 2022 will unquestionably be the year of the human asset.

Mark Walls made a short but accurate post in Safety National’s Carrier Chronicles blog this week about the “5 Pivotal Themes from the 2022 WCI Conference.” His 5 points were:

  • Talent attraction and development is the most significant issue facing the workers’ compensation industry.
  • Fully remote environments make training adjusters more difficult.
  • Staffing shortages are heavily influencing the quality of claims handling.
  • The pandemic reduced the number of providers available to medical networks.
  • Data is more available and more important than ever before.

Do you see a common theme? Four of those topics are directly related to human resource issues within and around the workers’ compensation industry. The recently released 2021 Workers’ Compensation Benchmarking Study conducted by Rising Medical supports this assessment. In the Executive Summary issued with the report, they say, “Another significant challenge is the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses, the economy, and human capital. The industry has long struggled with a talent supply and demand imbalance. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this talent shortage – with many leaving the workforce for good, as well as the lowest reported employment-to-population ratio since the recession of 1973–1975.”

We would be remiss if we did not point out that the era of the lowest “employment-to-population ratio” cited was the same decade President Nixon appointed a federal commission to investigate workers’ comp because of its perceived shortcomings at the time. Staffing matters.

And as an industry, we are struggling to find that staff. Unfortunately, we are not well positioned to attract new talent, nor are we prepared to retain them in the jobs as they exist today.

This is all the more ironic since the industry over the last few decades has focused on process and regulatory standards, eschewing purely “human interests” in the name of efficiency and productivity. We have done this both towards the injured workers we serve and as well as the workforce we’ve employed to conduct those services. Very little investment has been made in training, while caseloads have increased for everyone from the adjuster to the physician. Even today, as we stare at empty cubicles and an overstressed workforce we talk of “artificial intelligence” and “big data” as if those will solve our issues. The reality is those are tools to be used by a well-trained and supported human workforce. They are not a panacea. Absent that workforce, our industry using AI and big data are tantamount to a dog chasing a car. It wouldn’t have a clue what to do if it ever caught the damn thing.

It is likely safe to predict that 2022 (and probably 2023) will represent a paradigm shift for the workers’ compensation industry. We are starting to realize that process without purpose does not result in positive outcomes. It does not ultimately save money. And it does not keep a positive and effective workforce in place. To that end, we are seeing a rapid increase in discussions related to “humanity” in the claims process and embracing what has become known as the workers’ recovery model or advocacy-based claims management. The overwhelmingly positive response those of us involved in are seeing tells us the industry is preparing to embrace those philosophies. 

As an industry, we are moving beyond the chatter and starting to look at underlying issues affecting our ability to work effectively and efficiently. At the core of that search, we will find that well-trained, appreciated, and motivated human beings are the only answer to this issue. We can find those people with better messaging, but we will only keep those people on the job with better training and a more supportive work environment. 

We are currently viewed as a heavily regulated industry that “processes claims.” However, as I recently wrote, if we do things right, we are an industry with the noble mission of restoring shattered and broken lives. If we carry that message and provide a work environment that supports it, we can attract the people we need.

And we need those people. After all, for workers’ compensation 2022 is the year of the Human Asset. It says so on the internet, so it must be true.