Trauma-Informed Practices and Workers’ Comp…

The workers’ compensation and health care industries are partners in many ways – when medical and mental health services are well delivered, our customers, both workers and employers, benefit. So why not look to some important changes in the culture and practices of medical and mental/behavioral health professionals as we seek to continually improve the delivery of our services? For example, consider trauma-informed practices and motivational interviewing (the second being a topic for a future article here) and how they’re applicable to workers’ compensation. 

First, why do trauma-informed practices matter? According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. When someone is hurt on the job, the accident itself may be quite traumatic. So, chances are high that workers’ compensation claim managers and others are dealing with someone who is suffering from trauma.  

The National Council says “Trauma occurs when a person is overwhelmed by events or circumstances and responds with intense fear, horror, and helplessness…” If you’ve been in this industry for a while, you’ve dealt with helpless workers who seem ‘stuck’ in our system and processes and/or who have significant fears of returning to work. The resulting inertia, which may be a sign of trauma, is the enemy of work disability prevention.    

So what are “trauma-informed practices” or “trauma-informed organizations”? A simple outline available on the CDC website provides six guiding principles to a trauma-informed approach:  

  • Safety 
  • Trustworthiness and transparency 
  • Peer support 
  • Collaboration and mutuality 
  • Empowerment voice and choice 
  • Cultural, historical, and gender issues 

Consider how these guiding principles align with ways we should engage our worker customers so that their claim results in the best possible outcome for everyone (the worker, the employer, the claims professional, and the insurer). Whether we call the approach worker centric, whole person, claims advocacy or vocational recovery, the basic concepts are the same:  

  • Build a relationship of mutual trust and respect (aligns with “trustworthiness and transparency”) 
  • Include the worker’s perspective regarding decisions on their claim (aligns with “collaboration and mutuality”) 
  • Recognize the value for the worker to have some locus of control (aligns with “empowerment and choice”)  

Does this apparent alignment with the guiding principles of trauma-informed practices mean we’re already there? Hardly. Being a trauma-informed industry that consistently applies these practices takes constant attention to ensure they become part of our culture. And it isn’t just about how we treat workers who are hurt on the job. For those who are employers in workers’ compensation, your staff need to experience the same sense of safety and support within the organization. Consider starting there. From you, your supervisors and managers, your staff can learn how to treat customers in a way that recognizes they are likely dealing with trauma. And you’ll benefit from improved employee morale, customer experience, and claim outcomes!