How to support the mental health of an injured employee
Jennifer Cogbill is the senior vice president of GBCare, Gallagher Bassett’s workers’ compensation platform. Opinions are the author’s own.
It’s no surprise that construction laborers report more than double the number of nonfatal falls, slips or trips than all workers. While mitigating the risk of injuries makes the most sense to both businesses and employees, accidents still happen, and, unfortunately, people get injured while on the job.
Once an injury occurs, returning the employee to health, life and work is the top priority. Many construction companies don’t realize that once a person is injured, preexisting or new changes to their mental health can directly affect the way they deal with their injury and how they process the pain associated with the injury.
Furthermore, these factors can directly impact how quickly an injured employee can heal and return to work, which can have a direct effect on the costs of workers’ compensation claims.
Let’s outline a few steps that employers can take to into consideration:
Assess potential complications
Mental health challenges can form a barrier to recovery much in the same way as other known comorbid conditions, such as chronic illness (diabetes, hypertension, obesity, arthritis).
This impact is becoming more widely recognized. However, a mental health challenge is unlike hypertension or diabetes, as people may not be aware, admit or even understand they’re suffering.
A preexisting or newly developed behavioral health issue may result in the person catastrophizing a situation, leading to a potential increase in the amount of time it takes them to recover from their injury.
Companies can leverage technology and utilize a trained intake team tasked with identifying risk factors, including those related to mental health. Contractors can deploy training to navigate challenges for workers identified as being at risk.
Further along the claims process, teams engaging with the injured worker should have access to decision support, tools and training to identify risks as the claim evolves to help minimize the impact of mental health on the healing of physical injuries.
Consider additional intervention
Mental health issues may also affect the way a person processes pain. It can affect the injured person’s ability to work through pain. It can also prevent their ability to connect with healthcare professionals, reduce their motivation to return to pre-injury activity levels or affect a person’s trust in the team assigned to navigate their recovery.
Issues with mental health can also lead to higher perceived levels of pain from the injury, which can create a higher risk for opioid use or dependency. Those with mental health challenges may have preexisting substance abuse issues that can raise the risk of addiction and poor outcomes.
One in five Americans has suffered from a mental health disorder in the past 12 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The recent overhaul of CDC recommendations regarding provider autonomy over opioid prescriptions leaves care in the hands of where it should be — between the patient and their caregiver.
Still, there remains a risk of overprescribing opioids and other painkillers when there isn’t a direct line of sight to the mental well-being of the patient or if the provider doesn’t have the full picture of how the patient is dealing with their injury. This can result in overuse or possible addiction of pain medications.
Follow a care plan
Regular check-ins from a trained professional who is familiar with the case can have a positive effect on the overall experience of the worker during their time of recovery and directly affect the amount of time they need to recover before returning to work.
A trained professional can proactively look for warning signs of mental health struggles early on in the claims and recovery process. It’s important to have a consistent plan in place to identify early risk factors by merging technologies, the use of trained professionals, and strategically engaging critical resources to identify needs that are unique to the individual. This will help with deploying support so the issues don’t worsen and increase recovery time while driving up claim costs.
For the initial review process, a phone call from a telephonic nurse can help an injured worker navigate their medical treatment, collaborate with physicians and identify and resolve roadblocks to recovery. It’s a simple and cost-effective step in identifying potential mental health issues in injured workers.
Create a culture of wellness
There are proactive steps employers can take to lessen the burden of an injury on an affected employee. It may be possible to prevent or reduce existing mental health issues in workers ahead of injuries and potential claims. Creating a culture of employee wellness that includes employee assistance program (EAP) offerings, combined with a culture of inclusiveness and caring, can promote an advocacy model that focuses on supporting the person as a whole while recognizing that behavioral health challenges can be an obstacle to recovery.
This approach removes the focus from the injured body part and instead recognizes the well-being and overall health of the individual.
Identifying issues early on can have a positive impact on the amount of time a worker needs to recover, which can lead to a better overall experience while also having the potential to reduce claim costs.
Construction employers should look to partner with their employees and support the appropriate intervention strategies to improve overall health.