Why Empathy is Hard in Workers' Compensation


Empathy is a concept so needed in the workers’ compensation space and yet we have not invested the time, talent, and resources to further examine and develop this concept. Empathy: a core fundamental to build connection and trust.   

In this space, we are so quickly to judge the injured human being on the other end of the line or the person who filed the workers’ compensation claim and yet what many of us fail to realize: The story you tell yourself before interacting with this human depicts the actions you will take… and crazily enough, it has nothing to do with the injured worker. Food for thought.   

If you approach a situation thinking how great it will be to deny the workers’ compensation claim or that the injured worker is a liar, you will see what you approach the situation with as this concept appears frequently in life. Jon Gordon once said, “The story you tell yourself depicts the life you live and the actions you will take.” Apply that here and well, yes, he is correct. 

While there are many cynics who exist in the claims world, or as a former boss of mine called them “Crusty Claims Professionals”, I whole-heartedly believe there is a lot of good waiting to figure out how to be unleashed…and I believe people are doing the best they can. I fully believe those persons who handle workers’ compensation claims (also known as injured workers lives… but call it what you will), want to do the right thing and want to feel good about their position! What is a great way to do that which creates a win:win dynamic? Build a culture around empathy and emotional intelligence.  

What happens when we look inside at our own claims organizations and focus on the existing culture? If you are a leader of any claims organization, what do you see? And I mean really see… go look in the mirror or under the hood… what exists? Is this a place of welcoming, encouragement, and a place for your team members to thrive? Or a culture of processing, mental beatdown, and negativity?  

In workers’ compensation, empathy is one of the most important components, internally towards adjusters, as well as externally towards the injured workers. If we take the time to understand our people, and business is people, we look to connect the emotions that underpin an experience. Each injured worker has their own unique experience with a multi-emotional approach to the injury, the relationships with their direct leader as well as their employer, with the medical community, and so on. How well are we tapping into this?   

Think of it in this context, we know when one of our colleagues, teammates or adjusting friends is having an off day. Most people will be emotionally intelligent enough to ask, “are you okay?”; however, that question never seems to be asked to our injured workers’ while they are going through their recovery process. So simple! Three words that can change everything.  

Starting out with How are you? with an ask that is intentionally, authentic, and purpose-driven to seek to find meaning behind the attitude of the injured worker is imperative. This should be step one of claims adjusting training. How. Are. You. Pause… listen, and if you get a response rendered something to the verbiage of “fine” ask again. Actively and reflectively listen to see what is driving the mood, emotions, and behavior to the underlying work injury.  

Why does this matter? You can learn so much from asking these three simple words. It can change the relationship between an adjuster and an injured worker, as well as an employer and the injured worker. A meaningful how are you? is powerful. Be brave enough to ask the question and have the courage to listen to the answer.  

Connect the emotions to the work injury. What transpired? What relationships have been stressed, strained, or broken as a result of this injury? What perspective can be taken to seek to understand what situation the injured worker could be in with their employer, their family, organizations/clubs/groups they are a part of, and what they enjoy in their life?  

If summer is approaching and the injured worker you are helping along the healing process is an avid golfer, will they miss golf? This seems like a simple concept but humor me while we explore. Let us assume an adjuster is working with an injured worker who is an avid golfer and sustained a shoulder injury precluding any movement for a few months. During the summer, the injured worker usually spends nights at the course in golf league with their spouse, has a golf league with their friends, and uses it as a family activity with their children. The connection to golf is not purely for the injured worker alone but this expands now into impacting a family activity, a bonding activity with their spouse, and the social life of the injured worker. These elements matter when looking at what is lost in the process of the work injury, yet we do not teach people to think in this context.  

This claim has now impacted multiple facts of the injured worker. From the psychosocial standpoint, it can impact the injured worker’s relationships across multiple fronts. This may put a strain on the injured workers’ marriage. It could harbor resentment from the children of the injured worker if their parent is suddenly not able to do an activity they look forward to each summer. It can impact the socialization, friendships, and support the injured worker has had for years all from one unforeseen circumstance resulting in a shoulder injury.  

If we start to teach adjusters as well as employers to look behind the injured human, and see the global landscape of a LIFE, we can start to break out of the mold from a process driven benefit exchange system. We can look at the handling of workers’ compensation claims as an empathic approach to understanding the fundamental human needs by guiding a person along the path to recovery.  

I’m just a claims adjuster… No, wrong. You are way more than that and if your boss or employer treats you as such, time to find a new employer.  

Adjusters, you are a single-handed game changer that can impact the trajectory of someone’s life. A human being’s life is in your hands and not only their life, the people with whom they have influence. The ripple effect is immense. How do you impact it? Who we are is how we lead. How are you leading the injured humans with whom you interact, have influence, or make decisions?  

Believe there is good in this industry and then go be it. Be the good. It really is that easy.  

Dr. Claire Muselman is the Chief Risk Officer of Emory Industrial Services and avid workers’ compensation enthusiast.  

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