By John C. Peters, PhD, Chief Science Officer, Gain Life, Inc.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been considerable attention devoted to appreciating the amazing performance of front line health care professionals and the personal impacts of the crises they endure. These individuals already had stressful jobs prior to the pandemic dealing with sick patients and witnessing trauma on a regular basis. COVID amplified this, bringing a persistent threat to personal safety, the increased stress of resources and staffing shortages, and adding new challenges to home life. It is no wonder these brave individuals are suffering increased burnout, both physically and mentally.
The stress of dealing with sickness and trauma every day is not unique to health care professionals even if the work does not directly expose them to potentially harmful environments. Professionals in the workers’ compensation (WC) claim management field face many of the same stressors helping workers injured on the job including helping them make better decisions around their treatment plan by providing medical education and helping them navigate the complex WC system to recover and return to work.
For many injured workers, the experience is traumatic, both physically and mentally. If they are out of work, they lose a significant portion of their income. They must learn and do what is necessary to recover. They must deal with the isolation of being away from their co-workers. Not to mention the anger or frustration they experience as a result of the injury event or of the WC process itself.
When injured workers face such situations, they may lash out and direct verbal abuse at their WC claims professionals, even if the individuals serving them have no control over the situation that produced the ire.
Helping injured workers manage their injury and trauma can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. On top of this, WC professionals face the same challenges everyone experienced at home during the pandemic: child care issues, school closures, social isolation, and recently, cost of living inflation. This added to the stress on top of what they deal with every day at work. Furthermore, working from home isolated WC professionals from their co-workers, which can be an important source of camaraderie and support when performing such emotionally draining work.
Surveying the Issue
To gain a deeper understanding of the stressors faced by front line WC professionals, we conducted a small quantitative survey (56 respondents) asking about their experiences both before and after COVID. Respondents came from a broad cross section of organizations including insurance carriers, third party administrators and self-insured employers and reported work experience from less than one year to over 20 years. We asked them:
- What aspects of their job are the most stressful?
- How does interacting with injured workers affect their physical and mental well-being?
- Do they find purpose and meaning in their job.
- Did the pandemic impact them physically or mentally?
- Do they feel injured workers and their co-workers and managers appreciated their work?
We found that administrative demands were the most challenging.
When asked if stories of injured workers, and their subsequent traumas, affects their wellbeing, 29% of respondents said their wellbeing was affected somewhat or very negatively, 14% said the effects were somewhat or very positive, and 57% replied they had no impact or were neutral.
Younger, less experienced front line workers reported being more adversely affected by their work than those with more time in the job who reported being better able to cope with everyday exposure to stories of injury and hardship.
“Early on in my career I used to really feel this deeply and I would spend time outside of work thinking about people that were badly hurt,” said an experienced case handler. “However, 19 years into handling Worker’s Comp. claims, I just don’t take it personally at all anymore and don’t get invested.”
Finding Some Meaning
When asked about what are the most rewarding aspects of the job, 73% of respondents said that making a difference for injured workers was most rewarding, followed by professional learning or career advancement (57%), working with colleagues and managers (41%), and advancing business or team goals (30%).
Seventy-five percent of respondents answered true to the point, “I get a sense of meaning or purpose from my work as a workers comp adjuster”, while 25% answered false. Positive responses increased with years of experience, suggesting that adjusters who develop good feelings and feedback early in their career about the value of their work may be key to retention.
Nearly two thirds of respondents reported they felt somewhat or very appreciated by the injured workers they serve as well as their coworkers and managers, while a third felt somewhat or very unappreciated. Feeling unappreciated may lead to greater turnover and more difficulty recruiting people and suggests the need for further investigation about what leads to these feelings and what can be done to increase feelings of appreciation.
We received a number of comments about how front line jobs before the pandemic affected adjusters both physically and mentally including physical exhaustion and fatigue due to long hours, caseload stress, increased anxiety, mentally draining, negative emotions, panic attacks, and hopelessness. The pandemic amplified the negative effects with over a third of respondents saying their physical and mental health were somewhat or significantly worse.
Demanding but Critical
Overall takeaways from the survey illuminate key factors that can affect operational efficiency and employee well-being. The heavy administrative job requirements, as well as emotional stress and coping demands, place considerable strain on WC professionals. While most see meaning and purpose in what they do, this is not true for everyone. Up to a third of WC professionals feel their work is undervalued by injured workers, coworkers and managers.
COVID further exacerbated job stress for many bringing with it both physical and mental challenges. Burnout could be a real issue, especially for younger adjusters who are still developing coping skills.
It is not surprising that the WC industry is having difficulty recruiting and retaining top talent for these important jobs. Who would want a role with a huge case load, never ending deadlines, constant exposure to injury/trauma and frustrated people constantly yelling on the phone?
While these jobs may be difficult, they are also critical. Despite the challenges, it is possible to support these front line professionals in ways that provide meaning and purpose, professional growth and satisfaction, as well as nurturing a cohesive culture of caring for each other that can improve adjusters’ lives and the workforce they serve.
We will address ways to support caring for the front line in a future article.
About John Peters
John C. Peters, PhD, is the Co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Gain Life and Professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Previously, John spent 26 years at the Procter & Gamble Company in various R&D leadership roles. He has served on two National Academies of Science, Institute of Medicine committees, and has authored over 150 scientific papers and book chapters and published two books.
About Gain Life
Gain Life (www.gainlife.com) is a Boston-based insurtech company, born out of Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, and backed by General Catalyst and Unusual Ventures. We build software to help people and organizations return to health, work, and productivity. Our claims communication automation platform is utilized by carriers, employers, and TPAs to save claim costs and provide a better claimant experience across multiple insurance lines-e.g., workers’ compensation, general liability, commercial auto, and disability.