The COVID-19 pandemic was a once-in-a-lifetime event which caused many of us who've lived through it to experience certain difficulties. These ranged from isolation and mental health issues to serious illness or the death of a loved one. Regardless of your situation, at some point, you likely experienced changes (even if temporary) from your pre-COVID life.
For someone who is hurt at work, or for their loved ones, many of the negative COVID effects weren't new to them. They've experienced illness or injury, a dizzying regulatory environment, negative economic and employment impacts, uncertainty, and confusion.
Shared experience can cultivate empathy. Going through challenges and difficulties can lead to understanding. As the adage goes, “you can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.” The COVID pandemic gives workers' compensation professionals a unique opportunity to leverage their own personal experiences to harness empathy and compassion for injured workers and their families.
Confusing Regulatory Landscape
How long do I quarantine? Where can I get tested? How do I get vaccinated? Can I travel? When do the mask and social distancing restrictions expire? What is the occupancy capacity in public places? When can commercial business re-open? The CDC guidelines are different from the state, which are different from the county or city, etc.
At the present time, restrictions are waning and there's less confusion relative to COVID rules. However, at the height of the pandemic, there was a patchwork of policy and regulations which was oftentimes vague and inconsistent. Federal and local rules conflicted. Guidance was fluid and constantly changing. It was difficult to obtain authoritative information.
Similarly, workers' compensation rules are highly complex. It can be daunting for an injured individual trying to understand and navigate this maze. As a claims professional, attorney, or other workers' compensation provider, you can use your own experience in recognizing confusion of the COVID regulatory landscape to empathize with an injured individual.
Explain things simply. Acknowledge that sometimes certain prescribed rules don't necessarily jive with logic. Empathize with the understandable confusion of the work comp rules. Remain patient when re-explaining things or articulate them in a way someone can grasp. This patient education can provide great comfort.
Will I get sick with the Coronavirus? When will this be over? When will kids go back to school? Will I ever see my friends again? Will my parents, grandparents, family, and friends be alright? Think back to the summer of 2020 when everything was up in the air. Nothing was known or guaranteed.
Imagine now, being injured on the job. What if my claim isn't approved? When can I return to work? Will I lose my job? Should I settle my case? Can I do the things I used to? Will I need surgery? How will I support my family?
Personal experiences of uncertainty in COVID can inform your communication with injured workers and their families. You can eliminate fear of the unknown in a more effective way having gone through it yourself. Dr. Claire Muselman wonderfully addresses issues of uncertainty injured workers face, and how to effectively handle them in her piece titled, “Fear of the Unknown: Understanding Worry in Workers' Compensation.” There's a major opportunity here to leverage what comforted you during the pandemic and translate that to helping an injured individual work through this uncertain time in their life.
Being Out of Work & Negative Economic Effects
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report examining the unemployment rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, “[i]n April 2020, the unemployment rate reached 14.8%—the highest rate observed since data collection began in 1948. In May 2021, unemployment remained higher (5.8%) than it had been in February 2020 (3.5%)… and… payrolls shed 22.1 million jobs between January 2020 and April 2020.” Most people know someone who was laid off or who's employment was disrupted during the pandemic.
The fears and repercussions for injured workers who are unable to return to work are profound. How will they secure wage replacement benefits? Will it be enough? How will they provide for their family? How will they pay their mortgage/rent and their bills? Will they ever be able to return to work?
Having directly experienced employment loss or been close to it may help workers' compensation professionals understand and empathize what an injured individual is going through. This will enable more effective communication and in providing reassurance and comfort.
Mental Health Issues
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study on The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use indicates that the, “…pandemic and the resulting economic recession have negatively affected many people's mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders. During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.”
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services data shows a “…[a] 22% decline in the number of mental health services utilized by adults aged 19 to 64, compared to the same time period in 2019. This translates to approximately 14 million fewer mental health services for children and approximately 12 million fewer mental health services for adults, for a total of nearly 26 million fewer mental health services utilized across both groups.” See CMS Data Shows Vulnerable Americans Forgoing Mental Health Care During COVID-19 Pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) states that, “[p]ublic health actions, such as social distancing, are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but they can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety. [These can manifest themselves as]: feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration; changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests; difficulty concentrating and making decisions; difficulty sleeping or nightmares; physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes; worsening of chronic health problems; and worsening of mental health conditions.”
Similarities can be drawn between mental health issues following a workers' compensation injury and what isolated people went through during the pandemic. Following work injuries, mental health issues are prevalent. A study cited in a recent article addressing mental health issues in workers' compensation claims indicated that half of the sample size of workers surveyed stated they felt symptoms of depression at some point in the year following their injury. In addition to that, 10% of those workers worsened relative to their depression symptoms. From the same article, “other mental health issues that can complicate a claim include perceived injustice, when a worker feels his or her employer has wronged them…the fear of movement; depression; and anxiety.”
Whether there is an initial psychological component to the claim, or mental health issues manifest themselves because of the resulting injury or claims process, professionals may be able to leverage their own experiences with mental health during the pandemic to identify and better help injured workers.
As of the time of this writing, in the United States there have been approximately 33.7 million cases reported and 605,000 deaths. The numbers are staggering and difficult to process. Everyone became hyper-aware about health issues surrounding COVID-19. If not directly affected, they likely knew someone who was or experienced health issues or the tragic loss of a loved one. Illness being at the forefront of everyone's minds provides a unique opportunity for workers' compensation professionals to deeply connect and empathize with an injured worker.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed us all. While it has affected many of us in negative ways, my hope is that it will inspire us to change how we respond to others in need – having been in need ourselves. It should cause us to walk alongside those who require our help, because we've walked that mile in their shoes. As a workers' compensation professional, please remember this the next time you have the opportunity to help an injured individual.