The Difference Between Workers’ Compensation and Workers’ Recovery

We’ve all heard leaders from within workers’ compensation advocate that our industry should be re-labeled to appropriately address the outcome for anyone hurt on the job: recovery, not compensation. And, while words matter, it’s more than that. Workers’ recovery is about recognizing that return to work is part of the recovery process and, therefore, an important goal of an ideal system. It’s about eliminating delays and complexities of our systems, making it easier for workers to choose to return to work, for employers to offer return to work, and for medical providers to both approve and support return to work.

But it’s even more than that…

I recall a quote from another workers’ comp expert who said, “at industry conferences, seminars, and webinars during the last few years, there has been increasing talk about a more compassionate, worker-centric approach for treating injured workers, but there seems to be little movement.” I disagree. The statement fails to acknowledge those who have or are doing it, even if in the minority. 

Although many insurers and systems don’t yet understand what it means to be “worker-centric” or “customer-centric” (employers have important roles here, too), there are those that have successfully implemented such a model. For example, despite the challenges unique to an exclusive State Fund, we did it in Washington State, and the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board is currently working toward a culture of work disability prevention and mitigation – including a worker- or customer-centric approach. I would argue that this shift may be even easier for private insurers and third-party administrators who can decide who their customers may be, along with individual employers who have control of their work environments.  

“Worker-centric” recognizes that the easiest path to return to work is by engaging the worker who ultimately chooses to return to work. We all want control of our lives, yet many workers’ comp systems try to force return to work on the worker, rather than collaborating with them, and ultimately with their employer and medical provider, to achieve return to work. Using motivational interviewing techniques, identifying the worker’s goals and barriers, and nudging them through goal setting and goal attainment is the most efficient and effective path to return to work. This is to the benefit of everyone involved: workers, employers, systems, families, and communities.

After more than 50 years in workers’ comp, I’ve become a true believer that a worker-centric model to prevent and mitigate work disability is just what this industry needs to rebrand itself and “change the narrative” as many would say. If the system is truly about “recovery” not “compensation” then the easiest path is through the worker. We will all be better for it.