Words Matter…. But Don’t Overthink It!

In a prior article, I wrote about “The Difference Between Workers’ Compensation and Workers’ Recovery ” and I said that words matter. They do, but as we consider what’s ultimately important, let’s not overthink it.

“Workers’ compensation” or “workers’ recovery?”  To help answer this continuing question, perhaps we should first consider the history of our industry and where the term “workers’ compensation” likely started.  Workers’ comp laws replaced cumbersome, expensive and litigious tort systems as the means of compensating those seriously hurt at work.  So the name “workman or workers’ compensation” made sense at the time.  But, as I said before, many of us recognize that our industry needs to rebrand itself. We need to change the narrative so consumers of our services believe that we share their goal of returning workers and employers to productive lives and livelihoods after an injury.  But a “narrative” is just words – it is actions and behaviors that matter. How we engage workers and employers is where we can be guilty of overthinking the impact of words.

Take the concept of a “workers’ recovery professional” certification: the name is a significant shift from the longstanding job titles of those who handle worker claims.  They (we) are often called claim managers or claim specialists or, heaven forbid, claim adjusters (a job title that I think is a discredit to our work).  As we wring our hands over the recruitment crisis in our industry, have we considered whether young workers who want careers in human-centered work will aspire to be a claim adjuster?  Or will their passion for helping others be better triggered by the idea of being a workers’ recovery professional?  In either case, a professional title doesn’t mean a lot unless those who hold the certification actually support workers through their healing to an ultimate recovery and return-to-work outcome whenever possible.

Then there’s the debate about whether a more empathetic, customer-centric service model should be labeled worker recovery, claim advocacy, return to work, worker-centric, or something else.  But does it really matter?  The point of any of these terms is to message that the industry intends to and is changing.  That we are paying attention to current evidence and implementing best practices.  That we are engaging and activating workers and employers.  Again, that we reinforce work as part of the recovery process.

Ultimately, when a worker is hurt on the job and needs our support, our coaching, our active listening, their behavior and outcomes won’t be influenced by the job title we hold.  They won’t focus only on recovery simply because the person they talk with is called a “worker recovery specialist” rather than a “return-to-work professional”.  What will matter is whether they trust us, whether we partner with them and their employer, whether we work to eliminate confusion and fears, follow through with our commitments, avoid unnecessary delays, and address their needs to the best of our ability.  

No more rhetoric.  Actions will always speak louder than words.