Understanding Horizontal Relationships in Workers’ Compensation Claims Handling

13 May, 2024 Claire Muselman


Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) -- The relationship between claims adjusters and injured workers is vital to the workers' compensation process. Traditionally, this relationship has been hierarchical, with the claims adjuster having a significant amount of power over the outcome of the claims, often determining the extent of benefits and the speed of service delivery without the input of the injured party. This dynamic can create an imbalance where the needs and opinions of injured workers are not adequately considered, leading to dissatisfaction and a sense of injustice. However, by promoting a more collaborative and respectful relationship, where the claims adjuster and the injured worker work together, we can achieve a more just and effective resolution of claims. This approach ensures the system works as intended to support those it serves.

The Current Power Structure

Handling workers' compensation claims involves multiple stakeholders, including employers, insurance companies, medical professionals, and legal advisors. These stakeholders often have conflicting interests, making the claims management process challenging. The relationship between the claims examiner and the injured worker is at the center of this process. Traditionally, this relationship is structured in a vertical hierarchy, where the claims examiner holds significant decision-making power. This power dynamic can impact how claims are processed and resolved, leading to mistrust and frustration among injured workers who feel they have little control over the outcome. The hierarchical structure can discourage open communication and lead to adversarial interactions. Injured workers may perceive the process as opaque and biased against their interests.

The Need for Horizontal Relationships

In workers' compensation, horizontal relationships represent a transformative approach. This approach shifts the dynamic between claims examiners and injured workers from authoritative to collaborative. These relationships are built on mutual respect, transparency, and a shared objective of achieving fair claims resolution. Such an approach democratizes the process and humanizes it, recognizing the injured worker as a partner rather than a claimant. Establishing horizontal relationships is beneficial and essential for a system that aims to be just and efficient. Here are several vital reasons why fostering horizontal relationships in workers' compensation is crucial:

  • Enhanced Communication: When the claims examiner and the injured worker are on equal footing, it facilitates open and honest communication. This environment encourages injured workers to share all relevant information without fear of bias or reprisal, leading to more thorough and accurate claim assessments. Moreover, clear and direct communication can help clarify the claims process, making it more transparent and understandable for the injured party.
  • Increased Trust: When claims handlers treat injured workers respectfully and actively involve them in the claims process, it enhances trust. This mutual respect helps reduce conflicts and diminishes the adversarial nature often associated with claims handling. A trusting environment speeds up the resolution process and improves compliance and satisfaction among injured workers.
  • Improved Outcomes: Collaborative relationships often lead to more satisfactory outcomes for all parties involved. Solutions are more likely to be mutually acceptable when the process is about collaboration rather than confrontation. This shift can lead to faster settlements, more equitable support for injured workers, and even reduced costs for insurers as prolonged disputes and litigation decrease.

Comparing Vertical and Horizontal Relationships

The relationship between claims examiners and injured workers is typically hierarchical in workers' compensation. The claims examiner is seen as the authoritative figure who controls the terms and progression of the claim. This power dynamic can make injured workers feel alienated and powerless, as they may feel that their personal experiences and concerns are not valued or addressed. This traditional approach can hinder collaboration and lead to unsatisfactory claim resolutions.

On the other hand, horizontal relationships aim to create a partnership between the examiner and the worker, treating them as equals. This approach encourages empathy and leverages each party's unique perspectives and knowledge, resulting in more comprehensive and mutually satisfactory claim resolutions. By prioritizing healing and recovery, this approach aligns the claims-handling process more closely with the original intent of workers' compensation systems to support and rehabilitate injured workers.

Why Understanding Power Dynamics Matters

Recognizing and addressing power dynamics in workers' compensation is crucial to ensure that the system functions as intended - protecting workers and providing them with necessary support without causing undue hardship. When these dynamics are skewed, it can result in a system where decisions are made without adequate input from all parties, leading to unfair outcomes and a lack of support for the injured. Understanding and correcting these imbalances allows all stakeholders, including employers, insurers, and workers, to contribute to a more fair and just resolution process. By embracing a more balanced approach, claims are processed and resolved in a manner that genuinely respects and upholds the dignity and rights of injured workers. This deeper understanding fosters a more compassionate and efficient system, which aids in the healing and rehabilitation of the injured worker and builds a more positive perception of the workers' compensation system.

Toward a More Equitable Future in Workers' Compensation

Moving from vertical to horizontal relationships in workers' compensation claims handling can make a significant difference in the experience of injured workers and improve the operational efficiency of claims administration. The claims experience is not a mere checklist to be processed but a human experience. We can establish a more just and efficient system by creating an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual respect instead of authority and control. This approach benefits injured workers by ensuring their voices are heard. Claims examiners can meet their needs by facilitating smoother and less contentious claims processes. Recognizing and striving for horizontal relationships in this context can lead to a profound cultural shift in the insurance industry, where fairness and empathy are foundational principles. As we continue to advocate for these changes, all stakeholders involved in workers' compensation must recognize the importance of understanding and addressing these power dynamics to move towards a balanced and equitable approach.

*This article was inspired by Claire Abbott, Senior at Drake University majoring Environmental Sciences and Sustainability & Resilience.

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About The Author

  • Claire Muselman

    Meet Dr. Claire C. Muselman, the Chief Operating Officer at WorkersCompensation.com, where she blends her vast academic insight and professional innovation with a uniquely positive energy. As the President of DCM, Dr. Muselman is renowned for her dynamic approach that reshapes and energizes the workers' compensation industry. Dr. Muselman's academic credentials are as remarkable as her professional achievements. Holding a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership from Grand Canyon University, she specializes in employee engagement, human behavior, and the science of leadership. Her diverse background in educational leadership, public policy, political science, and dance epitomizes a multifaceted approach to leadership and learning. At Drake University, Dr. Muselman excels as an Assistant Professor of Practice and Co-Director of the Master of Science in Leadership Program. Her passion for teaching and commitment to innovative pedagogy demonstrate her dedication to cultivating future leaders in management, leadership, and business strategy. In the industry, Dr. Muselman actively contributes as an Ambassador for the Alliance of Women in Workers’ Compensation and plays key roles in organizations such as Kids Chance of Iowa, WorkCompBlitz, and the Claims and Litigation Management Alliance, underscoring her leadership and advocacy in workers’ compensation. A highly sought-after speaker, Dr. Muselman inspires professionals with her engaging talks on leadership, self-development, and risk management. Her philosophy of empathetic and emotionally intelligent leadership is at the heart of her message, encouraging innovation and progressive change in the industry. "Empowerment is key to progress. By nurturing today's professionals with empathy and intelligence, we're crafting tomorrow's leaders." - Dr. Claire C. Muselman

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