Why is Empathy Hard in Workers’ Compensation?

Empathy, noun, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

The workers’ compensation system was designed to restore the lives of humans who were injured during an unforeseen circumstance while at work. Helping people during these vulnerable moments, once injury has been sustained, should provide an opportunity to create a trusting relationship between an adjuster and the injured worker. The adjusting role should be looked at as the helper of the benefits exchanged as a result of the insurance and statues within the jurisdiction the person is injured. Adjusters should help throughout the process.

In looking at the adjusting role as a helping navigate a complex system, this creates opportunity to cultivate a meaningful relationship and connection to help an injured human during the most vulnerable time of their life. Someone please help me understand, why is empathy such a hard concept for adjusting organizations to teach, embrace, and utilize? Empathy should be a fundamental cornerstone taught to adjusters and embraced by insurance companies/third-party administrators to improve the outcomes for injured workers.

Yet we focus on statute. Rules. Regulations. Everything but empathy. Is it a wonder we hear adjusters who are prideful in being rude to other humans? Maybe this is a good reminder that workers’ compensation is a benefit exchange system… and the people who are ‘adjudicating’ claims have an opportunity to take everything we learned in kindergarten to make the world a better place. It costs NOTHING to be a kind human being and yet I am baffled at the lack of emotional intelligence and empathy that exists in this space.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to opine about a situation where an adjuster’s behavior had gotten worse as a result of the pandemic. While this adjuster had been in the office, their direct leader had been attempting to coach this person through language and emotional intelligence; however, had not been as successful as one would have hoped. The complaints continued and unless the calls were recorded or screened, the accountability was not followed up upon as it should have been.

I just do not get it. The workers’ compensation space is one of the most valuable spaces where you can help someone during an unforeseen circumstance. You can help change the trajectory of someone’s life by being able to provide consumable information to enhance the healing process when someone has been injured. And yet, I have heard, and have personally been treated quite poorly in this system. (Yes, been an injured worker twice.)

Where. Is. The. Empathy?! And why are we not teaching it? Empathy can be such a powerful tool when used to build connection and trust. Brené Brown reminds us in Dare to Lead that empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience. Specific to workers’ compensation, there are a plethora of emotions that underpin the workers’ compensation injury, system, and processes along the way.


I want to challenge the workers’ compensation space to think differently on what we are doing. I want us to start looking at things from the injured workers’ perspective. An easy way to start, please quit with the acronyms… IME, MMI, MRI, MSA, the list goes on forever. PLEASE start by talking to people like they are actual human beings. A wonderful reference I recently heard was “talk to me like you would talk to a Golden Retriever.” I like this concept.

We constantly fail to meet people where they are and forget that someone who is injured has a very different mindset than your average person who is not injured. Add in the characteristic of injury being work-related and we are in a much different realm. So many thoughts from Will my body work like it did before? to What happens to my job?… and there are so many more surrounding dates, events, family, etc. Why can’t we start being human and talking to our injured workers like they are PEOPLE?

What if…

What if we start to build human connection? We could start by finding three commonalities with an injured worker when we speak to them. Maybe we can help build the relationship and trust. What if every time an adjuster talks to an injured worker, and looks for three commonalities, trust builds? This can be as simple as what television show someone has been watching, having a pet, or following an athletic team. It is so easy to find three commonalities, and to do this with each interaction can truly enhance the human connection to build a bond to help an injured worker through the workers’ compensation process.

What if we took the perspective of the injured worker we were helping and started to see the world from their eyes? We listened to their concerns, and we asked questions about concerns? What if we looked at the process from their perspective to see what lens they were seeing this injury?

What if we quit thinking everyone was out to cheat the system and we started to approach every situation non-judgmentally? What if we realized the factual and statistical proof of where fraud in workers’ compensation comes from? What if we realized where the catapults of soft fraud come from and that many of the fraudulent aspects of workers’ compensation come from people and organizations who profit upon human suffering?

What if we paid attention to the scared human on the other line post injury and we listened to their feelings? What if we went a step further and tried to understand their feelings towards the system, their claim, the physician, their employer? What if we truly listened to hear what was going on and not simply to respond? What if we actually tried to see where the feelings were coming from and put ourselves in that person’s place for a few moments?

What if we took it a step further to communicate the understanding of the injured workers’ feelings? What if we made our communication consumable? And we took the time to communicate when the injured worker is not directly post injury, but we talked to them when they are able to receive information in a settling where their mind is in a better place?

And why is no one teaching this!? These are all basic human skills, needs, desires… and it all surrounds empathy.

We must stop being a process-oriented system… otherwise let artificial intelligence take over. Let technology be the benefit delivery system. Computers practice more empathy than some of the conversations I have witnessed and experienced in workers’ compensation. I know this place can be better. I know we can make this a place for people, both injured workers and adjusters to thrive. I know we can change the system. It takes people who care.


This is a call to action. A call to make empathy a cornerstone in how we treat our injured human beings and more so, a simple request to care.