September 2017 – Making a Difference!

Every day we encounter all sorts of people, all sorts of dispositions. Some are calm, cool, and collected, and take things in their stride. Others are strung tight, reacting – and maybe over-reacting – to even small problems. Some we love to see coming, and we go out of our way to make time for them. Others, not so much. Some have a zest for life and a badass ‘nothing-can-get-in-my-way’ attitude, while others live a ho-hum existence and seem to collapse under the weight of even minor difficulties.


Any of those people could experience an injury or an illness that puts them out of work with a disabling condition. Most of them will go back to work without much intervention, but some we know won’t.

Unsuccessful recovery is understandable when the injury or illness is catastrophic, but it’s the ones that aren’t that are troubling. I’m talking about the claims that we think should lead to recovery but don’t, the ones that seem for all the world as if they are minor conditions that, with the right attitude, could be overcome easily. But somehow they don’t work out that way.

Your instincts will usually be wrong

It’s not just that we don’t know what to do in these circumstances. It’s that our natural instincts lead us to do exactly the wrong things.

Back to those different kinds of people. Chances are that you find it easy to handle the calm, confident, badasses of the world, and the “ho-hums” can be hard work. They seem to suck the air out of a room, so it’s tough to spend time with them.

The problem is that when it comes to helping a disability claimant/injured worker return to work, that’s exactly backward. The motivated, determined claimant is more likely to go back to work without our help. The apparently unmotivated claimant may not be as much fun to talk with, but they are the ones who could really use our help.

Blaming the victim

Sometimes claim managers can fall into the trap of blaming the claimant assuming that it’s “just” a lack of motivation preventing their return to work. But motivation is more complicated than that. Motivation combines desire for a goal with our assessment of the chance of success. If we don’t want something, we won’t be motivated to get it. But if we want something, but don’t think it’s possible to succeed at getting it, we won’t be very motivated to try hard. That’s how it works for you and me, and that’s how it works for claimants, too.

In other words, motivation isn’t an either-or, all-or-nothing proposition. It’s a complex interplay of desire, perceived chances of success, appraisal of available support, and the balance of costs and rewards. To paraphrase the late Dr. Ken Mitchell, it isn’t that people are unmotivated; it’s that they may be motivated by something different than we expect. Problematically, our “gut instincts” will often lead us to the wrong conclusion.

So what do we do?

The first, most important thing we can do is to listen to claimants and injured workers. What motivates them, and what is it that they miss about their previous working life? How do they feel about their chances of success at returning to their prior work? Remember that this isn’t about facts; it’s about how the claimant feels about their situation. Listening to the apparently unmotivated claimant is the first step to understanding them.

Which brings us to the second thing we can do, which is to encourage them. If what we hear is pessimism about the chances of successfully returning to work, then encouragement may be the solution. Ask about what obstacles the claimant has overcome in the past, and build on those skills.

Finally, fight your instinct to reach for the low hanging fruit. Chances are high that the claims you want most to spend time on are the ones that need you the least, while the claims that are difficult and easiest to procrastinate on are the ones that could most use your help. You won’t know who you can help unless you take the time to ask questions and listen for the answers.

One last thing

If our instincts will tend to lead us astray, what else can we do? This is where data analytics can be most helpful. By relying on claim analytics, we can see which claims will be most likely to recover on their own, without much investment of time or resources. We can also see which claims are least likely to recover, probably because they are catastrophic, and for which no amount of time or resource investment will make much difference.

And the ones in the middle? Those are the ones where we can most make a difference, where our ability to listen, encourage, and engage are most likely to help. Take that as a strategy, and not only will you help more claimants, but you’ll also have a more rewarding experience.

Les Kertay, Ph.D., ABPP
Consulting Psychologist

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