Vulnerability in Workers’ Compensation

In 2018, I sustained an injury to my left hip. The injury resulted in five surgical procedures that summer, with a plethora of rehab on my road to recovery. While the physical process was painful and challenging, the mental components were even worse. This was a workers’ compensation claim.

Six weeks post-operation, I was in physical therapy. My physical therapist was very straight forward with me and said “The physical rehabilitation will not be the hard part to this, the mental rehabilitation will be much harder. Prepare yourself.”

In the back of my mind I thought, I’ve been in workers’ compensation for 15 years. I have broken a plethora of bones in my life and had a few operations. I had sustained injuries with compound fractures… I got this. Pain is not my enemy. I am tough! And just like that, the world smiled at me and said, hmmm. Are you?

Boy was I wrong. Physical therapy started quickly after surgery. By the time I had progressed with enough strength to do squats, it was time to start moving to one-legged squats. Easy I thought! Just a simple retraining of the muscle memory as exercise had been a part of my life since childhood. This was going to be a breeze. And then I fell. My left leg could not support my body and I fell to the ground. The ground was hard, and I felt my tailbone hit the black spongy flooring. I started to cry. 

This had NOTHING to do with my physical limitations but the failure washing over me like giant ocean waves suffocating me with their intensity. I cannot show up for myself. I am not strong enough for this. And if I am not able to do this for me, what am I doing to be a role model for my daughter? What is she seeing? What is my team seeing? What does my partner see? I feel so weak as I sat there on the floor at therapy and cried. I felt so seen, and so vulnerable.

My therapist moved to the ground area of the open flooring space next to me and put her hand on my knee. “I told you this would be tough. And you will get tougher. You will get stronger. And now you know how your injured workers feel when they are going through this.” Boom. That was the lesson. More so that how I felt I my own life, for 15 years, I did not get it in the context that was this moment. I knew about care, compassion, concern, empathy… all the things I understand matter in human behavior. But I did not know or understand it like this.

To understand the flood of emotions that hit you like the heavy ocean waves of failure, it feels like a dark hole of despair. I had an amazing support system helping me through this process from family, friends, team members, medical professionals, and neighbors. Even with these amazing, circled wagons of support, I felt alone. I felt as if I was the only person who had experienced this situation and I had no idea who I could talk to about this who could understand the weight I felt I was carrying. Workers’ compensation has a stigma, and I did not want to be seen differently because of it.

When we look at vulnerability, we fail to acknowledge the deepest and truest parts of this emotion. Vulnerability exposes us to others and experience in times of risk or uncertainty. While I sat there, on the physical therapy floor, crying, there was no hiding my emotions. My emotions were on display for everyone to see. I felt anxiety, uncertainty, and an immediate need to self-protect and I had no idea how.

The single left legged squat was a risk of failure. When I went back the next time, I felt uneasy and that there was an uncertainty to the trust in my body. I wanted to be strong and feel that I could do this! I was scared to fail and even more uneasy about the emotions throughout this process.

I let this situation sit with me for a long time before I talked about it. It felt icky and gross. The recovery journey is not a pretty one. It paved in colors of purples, blues, and yellows from bruising, designed by stiches and stables creating patterns of scarring to remember the events leading to this point. And what had I learned?

I learned the power of vulnerability.

When a worker is injured, there are a plethora of emotions that come into play from fear to resentment, being scared, hopeful, worry-some, concerned, and many more. This is a risky time, not only for the human body and the financial elements of this person, but also for the experience itself as it creates so much uncertainty. When we add in the ‘insurance adjuster’ from the company the media has depicted as an evil human who wants to make the worst scenario occur, it is no wonder people wall up and become skeptical of the process.

Insurance companies have a purpose, to restore the livelihood of people. In workers’ compensation, the goal is to restore people who have been injured by betting them back to work, back to life. If that truly is the purpose and intention of an insurance company, why do we not focus on vulnerability of an injured human during this time? If we are well aware the purpose of the programming, and we understand the people involved, and there is science to support human behavior, then why do we leave off this element, the HUMAN element, to the workers’ compensation claims process?

This should be the cornerstone in the workers’ compensation process, looking to understand the vulnerability and exposure of an injured person during this time of need. These injuries are unforeseen circumstances that just happen to be at work. We need to take this to heart and rethink how we look at the entire landscape. How to we start incorporating more HUMAN for a better overall experience?

Bonus points. Not only is this the right thing to do, to focus on helping people… when you do this and focus on these areas of vulnerability within the human psyche, it improves organizational culture, employee morale, and it saves money. Crazy. Doing the right thing saves money. Who would have thought?

Dr. Claire Muselman is a three-time recovered ‘injured worker’ who strives to leave the workers’ compensation space with added color, glitter, and sparkles to make the industry a better place to learn, develop, and grow.