Hey Injured Workers: It is okay to not be okay.

As an eternal optimist, I understand the times when people tell you to stay positive, look on the bright side, or it could have been worse. I get it. I continuously practice it. And even post injury, post work-injury, I am grateful it was only ‘so bad’.

There are times you may think being positive is the only way to get through difficult or challenging circumstances. To always see the brighter side, to always find the glass half full, to always know that the sun will shine again…these are all great mindsets to have. And also, it is okay to not be okay. Both things can be true. A balance exists with optimism and realism.

Sustaining a work injury alters your life in a plethora of ways. Your body is now not what it was before and will need time to recover to get back to where it was. You have now been removed from your sense of ‘normal’ in life and routine has shifted. Easy tasks like going to the grocery store or picking up your children from school are now scheduled in advance or assistance is needed. There is emotional turmoil from missing the camaraderie in the workplace, missing colleagues, friends, the absence of feeling accomplishment from being at work. Add in pain, any impact on the financial side, and again, the human body failing to be as strong as it once was to withstand life. Oh! And everyone around you wants you to be okay so when you are not okay, feelings of guilt to not pour onto someone else exist internally.

It is okay to not be okay. Contrary to popular opinion, sometimes it really is best to sit with our feelings and embrace our emotions. Feelings come and go like ocean waves. Pain can also be amplified by stuffing our emotions down and not experiencing what we need to through the sensory within our body. When we trap the energy from some of the less desirable emotions, the energy from these feelings will resurface like a monsoon of emotion and can be felt through physical experience. Being authentic takes an understanding of knowing when to look for the brighter side and also knowing when to sit with whatever we are feeling. Self-compassion is an imperative component of self-care and one that should be granted to ourselves with grace especially in times where we do not feel our best. And this is not limited to personal injuries… it exists in workers’ compensation as well.

We have come to embrace what is known as toxic positivity, where everything is awesome all of the time and if we do not feel ecstatic about life 100% of the time, something is wrong with us. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to sit with our feelings, to journal them, to reach out to friends, and to understand that it is okay to sit with feelings that do not necessarily feel good. Problems begin to exist when these feelings take over everything, encompassing many avenues of our lives, and that is not what this article is meant to cover. There are times where professional help and intervention is needed for proper healing.

When looking at this through the workers’ compensation lens, as an injured worker, and a risk manager, the duality of wanting to get better quickly, to be restored, healed, and back to work so you can be back to life is the goal of everyone with a seat at the table. It can also feel like an overbearing amount of weight to carry as stakeholders want every visit, every physical therapy session, and every dawn of a new day to be perfect and better than yesterday. Too bad the human body, healing, and our egos do not allow for this to occur in this manner. It reminds me of weight loss… if you are actively trying to lose weight, the starting weight to goal weight is seldomly a straight line. It’s a scribbly mess and that is what I feel healing from a work injury feels like as well.

We, as risk managers, claims professionals, employers, and stakeholders in workers’ compensation need to do a better job of active listening to our injured workers and recovering employees when things are not going well. We need to stop problem solving for every detail and create a psychologically safe space for injured workers and recovering employees who need to express the vulnerabilities from these emotions. Sometimes, people simply want to be heard.

Today might not be the very best day. It is okay. This will soon pass and there is a shiny sun-rising day in the future. It may not feel great today, it may not be great tomorrow. Eventually, the waves will calm and we will be back to feeling better.

We so quickly want to solve problems for others when we hear their world is going awry. We look for the latest medical solution or ancillary service to try to help the injured worker. We listen to put a positive spin and problem solve when we should be listening to understand. Listening to understand is how we learn from one another and how we allow emotions to process. We do not simply hear what someone is going through but we listen. By actively listening, both parties are able to open their minds to better manage emotions. This avenue channels our skillsets of empathy and emotional intelligence which is imperative in workers’ compensation. These soft skills are imperative for the best outcomes across the board.

It is okay to not be okay. To my fellow injured workers, process and find healthy outlets to move forward with whatever traumatic event has occurred resulting in the injury sustained. Where we find error in our ways is when we do not process these emotions. What really happened? What was the root cause? Do you need to forgive yourself, a co-worker, your employer… what do you need to process the event to be able to heal? We stuff our feelings into a box, put it in the closet, and never want to think about it again. We have got to do better for one another through injured worker advocacy to allow space when these situations are being communicated.

It is okay for the mind of an injured worker to not instantly go to “well it could have been worse” or “look on the bright side”. It is okay to not be okay. And when we can become comfortable with the uncomfortable, knowing that this will pass, and that we will feel great again at some point, our feelings can move on as they process. It is okay to understand that our feelings will be heavy for a small amount of time but that the heavy nature will lift. We owe it to ourselves to be accountable and to show up to find healthy avenues to get these feelings to process.

Trauma comes in a lot of different forms. Never forget the pain is here to teach a lesson. The lesson might not always be clear, but the lesson is always there. Sometimes that means looking deep inside to find something needing to be explored, to be cleaned out and unpacked, or possibly, letting go of something no longer our current state hindering progress forward. Sometimes it is taking an act of self-respect and standing up for things that we might not have seen as prevalent as we needed to grow. The pain is here to teach a lesson and make things better. These lessons continue to repeat themselves until we pay attention and make the necessary changes. So it’s OKAY to not be OKAY, just do not forget there is a lesson inside. The pain does not pass without becoming better because of it. Even when it is a work injury.

Five ways to help yourself as an injured worker:

  1. Journal your emotions. Whatever you feel, write it out. If you do not want to use a journal, find a piece of paper and take the time to write out whatever you are thinking, processing, or feeling. You can always rip the paper up or throw it away. The art of writing is therapeutic and will help process the emotions.
  • Get outside. The open air, sunlight, and being in an outdoor environment can boost your mental space. Feeling sunlight on your face, increasing your vitamin D, and getting some ‘green’ therapy can be very therapeutic. When I am in a ‘mood’ I like to go find a trail with a tree canopy. The green color and the fresh air can do so much to energize my soul. Mother Nature has a great way of reminding us what is important and how connected we truly are to the universe. Plus, going for a walk is a great way to increase endorphins! Right now, I am on crutches so simply sitting out on my patio is working. Hello fall!
  • Meditate & Breathe. Meditation can be found in a plethora of areas. Find what works for you. The idea is to quiet your mind. If you are in a funky headspace, clearing out your mind can have its benefits to reset. Focus on your breath and the beautiful simplicity of inhaling/exhaling. This can be found in sitting still, in running, getting lost in music while dancing, whatever works for YOU. There are pain relief benefits from meditation too! BONUS!
  • Smile & Move. Find a reason to smile. Locate a photo that jogs a memory, listen to a song that makes you feel alive, smell a scent you adore… find something to trigger your happiness to genuinely smile. There are times where I need a quick ‘The Office’ clip to whole-heartedly laugh.  Also like to have a ‘sunshine’ kit where focus is placed on the five senses to trigger reminders of the greatness within yourself. Movement is also quite powerful. From going on a walk to dancing it out, get your body to move and it will help process the emotions you are feeling. If you sustained an injury to your lower body, that upper body can still move… find a way to make movement happen. Your soul needs it!
  • Most importantly, build a tribe. Circle your wagons of colleagues, neighbors, friends, or family who love you and can support you through anything you are going through. These wagons will be able to find compassion in what you are saying. These are the people who will grant you space to breathe, feel, and explore versus solving or pushing positivity. The members of your tribe who can grant you the space and the freedom to truly own your emotions will help you process to figure out exactly what you need. We tend to exclude the tribes with work injuries, and we need to do better to keep them included and involved. People want to help. It is okay to allow them the space to do so.

Dr. Claire Muselman is a two-time injured worker on the road to recovery from knee surgery from this past fall. She is an avid cheerleader in the workers’ compensation space adding glitter and sparkle to help workers’ recovery within employers, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers across the United States.