Return To Work

After Traumatic Injury, Workers’ Comp Thrives with This Return-to-Work Strategy

After a life-changing injury, emotional barriers can hinder a person’s ability to re-enter the workforce. Focus on psychosocial factors is vital.
By: | July 30, 2018 • 8 min read

A workplace accident can leave a worker with a spinal cord injury, an amputation, severe burns or a brain injury, turning their world upside-down. The physical toll is obvious if a worker is missing a limb or immobile. But the psychological hurdles often are hidden.


Recovery can be fraught with emotions, fear and anger among them. This complicated tangle — and the way a person handles it — can reduce the odds that a person will ever re-enter the workforce.

According to studies, employment rates several years after injury hover around 50 percent for severe brain injuries, 35 percent for paraplegics, 25 percent for quadriplegics, just under 70 percent for amputees, and 80 percent for severe burn victims.

Costs are jarring, too. For traumatic brain injuries alone, researchers estimate an economic impact of $56 billion yearly, much of it due to lost productivity.

Experts believe we can do better.

Medical, surgical, prosthetic and technology advances are pushing workers forward. Payers and care management organizations can improve outcomes by putting more emphasis on treating for psychosocial factors.

Set the Tone from Day One

After an injury, it takes time for an injured worker to envision any future. That’s why the psychosocial factors in recovery and return-to-work need to be on the table from day one.

Some might presume that talking to an amputee or a spinal injury patient right away about going back to work would seem callous or create pressure. But most people equate having a job with having a normal life. Talking about work introduces the idea of getting back to normal — even a new normal.

That’s important early on, when the injury seems terrifying. Work offers hope for the future and gives the worker something to cling to when he might otherwise get caught up in “my life is over” thinking.

Marcos Iglesias, senior vice president and chief medical officer, Broadspire

“We’re raised to believe you survive in this world by having a job,” said Zack Craft, vice president of rehab solutions with One Call.

“When you say you may never work again, or don’t know if you can, you have emotional stress and that’s going to impact how you heal and how you think.”

Added Marcos Iglesias, senior vice president and chief medical officer with Broadspire, “One of the things that effective doctors do, and I recommend we claim professionals do, is [to ask] early, ‘What do you like about work?’ It starts getting into the individual’s mind the idea that we’re expecting that they’ll return to work. That work is good for them.”

Setting the stage for return to work can also help counter financial panic.

Said Craft, “[Even if] you’re not worried about today’s bills, you’re worried about your bills in five years. And how are you going to pay for your daughter’s wedding? Are you going to go be able to retire, to travel, and do the things that we all look forward to in our work lives?”

Presented in a positive way, with realistic and achievable steps, talking affirmatively about the path back to work can buoy workers’ health and outlook.

Focusing on the future can be instrumental in helping workers heal from emotional trauma, said Marijo Storment, CEO of ALARIS | Encore.

“There are times when we see injured workers just hang on to the accident or injury so tight that they can’t get past the actual event. That’s a big psychosocial component and can be a [significant] barrier.”

Storment said that workers with traumatic injuries do best when helped to focus on their “new normal.”

The Right Support

The help of an experienced case manager is essential. Beyond coordinating an injured worker’s treatment and physical transition back to home and work, the case manager is in the best position to gauge a worker’s mental state and communicate with the team if a psychologist is needed.


But often, it is case managers themselves who are the primary source of emotional support for injured workers. During a recent webinar hosted by Genex, Jeremy Romero, a former police officer with the Corrales Police Department in New Mexico, spoke about his initial despair after a high-speed chase left him with a spinal cord injury. Romero said his nurse case manager helped to ground him.

As Romero tells it, Genex nurse case manager Trish Elizalde said to him upfront, “I don’t know you yet, but I’m not going to let you give up.”

Elizalde helped Romero understand that as serious as his injury was, “it didn’t mean my career was over, it didn’t mean my life was over.”

“My case manager was my constant support, constant backbone,” said Romero. “Without that, I wouldn’t be where I am today; I am 100 percent certain of that.”

Case managers also support the injured worker’s family, which can help ease worries about how they are coping. Having support helps families set aside their own fears so that they can encourage and care for the injured person.

Matching the injured worker with the best possible rehab facility is also crucial.

“At most centers of excellence … I think there’s more advanced thinking in terms of including psychosocial risk factors in the diagnosis and the assessment even in the earlier treatment,” said Iglesias. “At centers of excellence, they tend to know that [a traumatic injury patient] needs behavioral health support on day one — it’s not an afterthought.”

“There are rehab facilities that are going to be more in tune and provide more extensive psychosocial work toward redefining normal for that injured worker,” said Storment.

A specialized facility can also offer a sense of perspective, and the benefit of seeing others progressing on their journey, said Craft.

“A lot of these regional facilities, they have one or two spinal cord patients in the hospital. You go to the Shepherd Center you’ve got dozens of patients in their outpatient facility,” It’s a lot harder to get stuck in a negative or catastrophic mindset you’re surrounded by hurt just as bad or worse, who are pushing through and keeping a positive attitude, said Craft.

Prepare for the Bumps in the Road

Once a worker is medically ready to come back to work, there is typically a broad range of accommodations and other factors to be addressed to facilitate a successful transition.

Whether a worker comes back to the same job, or to a different job at the same company, or to another job altogether, the case manager will ideally be the one to communicate with the employee, the employer and the treatment team and assure a fit that works for both employer and employee.

Zack Craft, vice president, rehab solutions, One Call Care Management

“We want to make sure when they go back … they’re doing work that they see as valued,” said Storment. “The injured worker doesn’t want to be there just to check a box.”

The work environment can present challenges for a worker’s new needs. Some workers might need a private place to administer medication, for example.

With a spinal cord injury, there are bowel and bladder issues to be considered. A quadriplegic could have specific feeding needs. Such situations may not always have easy answers.

Consider, for example, an amputee who needs to take his prosthetic off from time to time, said Craft.

“That prosthetic gets hot and gets heavy. Your skin itches and you say, ‘I want to take that thing off,’ and suddenly everybody’s all, ‘Oh my, you just put your hand on the table!’

Not every employee is emotionally stable or emotionally mature enough to handle that type of situation. How do they address that?”

Part of it, he said, is reaching out to that employer and preparing them and saying to them, “He’s going to come back different, there are going to be complications. There are going to be some things that need to be addressed, to be aware of.”

“We have to really be proactive,” said Storment. “We’re not going to solve every barrier before we get there. But if we try to create a clear path, that return-to-work milestone is going to be much more successful.”

Opportunities for Faster Engagement

To accommodate workers whose needs might be too difficult or uncomfortable to manage within the workplace, working from home could be a viable option.

“Ten years ago, an individual with a spinal cord injury’s return to an office environment was wrought with obstacles,” said Craft, “both because of the physical challenges and difficulties engaging with the rest of the workplace.”


“But fast forward to today. Say a top salesperson was in a [work-related] car accident and there’s a spinal cord injury. They’re not ready to return to work emotionally and physically, or the company may not be ready for it. Today, the scenario could be, ‘Let us set up your home office.’

“We’re not pushing individuals that way yet today, but that’s where I would like to go,” he said.

“We want to bring them back into the company as fast as we can – no matter what it is they can do – and it doesn’t have to be a lot.”

First Change Industry Mindset 

Part of the challenge, said Craft, is getting other stakeholders to think differently about how they handle catastrophic injury cases. Too many people across the industry think “Oh it’s a spinal cord injury. He’s not going to return to work,” said Craft. “They see it catastrophically.”

It’s important to have a strategy, have a goal, and track that goal, he said.

“Let’s put a date out there and let’s make everybody accountable. These individuals should return to work to some level,” he said.

Broadspire’s Iglesias is in agreement. “Have a written plan. Identify the stakeholders, identify the possible jobs and tasks that are available. Identify where the individual is today and where [the treatment team] thinks he might be in X number of weeks.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance


Kiss Your Annual Renewal Goodbye; On-Demand Insurance Challenges the Traditional Policy

Gig workers' unique insurance needs drive delivery of on-demand coverage.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 6 min read

The gig economy is growing. Nearly six million Americans, or 3.8 percent of the U.S. workforce, now have “contingent” work arrangements, with a further 10.6 million in categories such as independent contractors, on-call workers or temporary help agency staff and for-contract firms, often with well-known names such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO, Trōv

The number of Americans owning a drone is also increasing — one recent survey suggested as much as one in 12 of the population — sparking vigorous debate on how regulation should apply to where and when the devices operate.

Add to this other 21st century societal changes, such as consumers’ appetite for other electronic gadgets and the advent of autonomous vehicles. It’s clear that the cover offered by the annually renewable traditional insurance policy is often not fit for purpose. Helped by the sophistication of insurance technology, the response has been an expanding range of ‘on-demand’ covers.

The term ‘on-demand’ is open to various interpretations. For Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO of pioneering on-demand insurance platform Trōv, it’s about “giving people agency over the items they own and enabling them to turn on insurance cover whenever they want for whatever they want — often for just a single item.”


“On-demand represents a whole new behavior and attitude towards insurance, which for years has very much been a case of ‘get it and forget it,’ ” said Walchek.

Trōv’s mobile app enables users to insure just a single item, such as a laptop, whenever they wish and to also select the period of cover required. When ready to buy insurance, they then snap a picture of the sales receipt or product code of the item they want covered.

Welcoming Trōv: A New On-Demand Arrival

While Walchek, who set up Trōv in 2012, stressed it’s a technology company and not an insurance company, it has attracted industry giants such as AXA and Munich Re as partners. Trōv began the U.S. roll-out of its on-demand personal property products this summer by launching in Arizona, having already established itself in Australia and the United Kingdom.

“Australia and the UK were great testing grounds, thanks to their single regulatory authorities,” said Walchek. “Trōv is already approved in 45 states, and we expect to complete the process in all by November.

“On-demand products have a particular appeal to millennials who love the idea of having control via their smart devices and have embraced the concept of an unbundling of experiences: 75 percent of our users are in the 18 to 35 age group.” – Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO, Trōv

“On-demand products have a particular appeal to millennials who love the idea of having control via their smart devices and have embraced the concept of an unbundling of experiences: 75 percent of our users are in the 18 to 35 age group,” he added.

“But a mass of tectonic societal shifts is also impacting older generations — on-demand cover fits the new ways in which they work, particularly the ‘untethered’ who aren’t always in the same workplace or using the same device. So we see on-demand going into societal lifestyle changes.”

Wooing Baby Boomers

In addition to its backing for Trōv, across the Atlantic, AXA has partnered with Insurtech start-up By Miles, launching a pay-as-you-go car insurance policy in the UK. The product is promoted as low-cost car insurance for drivers who travel no more than 140 miles per week, or 7,000 miles annually.

“Due to the growing need for these products, companies such as Marmalade — cover for learner drivers — and Cuvva — cover for part-time drivers — have also increased in popularity, and we expect to see more enter the market in the near future,” said AXA UK’s head of telematics, Katy Simpson.

Simpson confirmed that the new products’ initial appeal is to younger motorists, who are more regular users of new technology, while older drivers are warier about sharing too much personal information. However, she expects this to change as on-demand products become more prevalent.

“Looking at mileage-based insurance, such as By Miles specifically, it’s actually older generations who are most likely to save money, as the use of their vehicles tends to decline. Our job is therefore to not only create more customer-centric products but also highlight their benefits to everyone.”

Another Insurtech ready to partner with long-established names is New York-based Slice Labs, which in the UK is working with Legal & General to enter the homeshare insurance market, recently announcing that XL Catlin will use its insurance cloud services platform to create the world’s first on-demand cyber insurance solution.

“For our cyber product, we were looking for a partner on the fintech side, which dovetailed perfectly with what Slice was trying to do,” said John Coletti, head of XL Catlin’s cyber insurance team.

“The premise of selling cyber insurance to small businesses needs a platform such as that provided by Slice — we can get to customers in a discrete, seamless manner, and the partnership offers potential to open up other products.”

Slice Labs’ CEO Tim Attia added: “You can roll up on-demand cover in many different areas, ranging from contract workers to vacation rentals.

“The next leap forward will be provided by the new economy, which will create a range of new risks for on-demand insurance to respond to. McKinsey forecasts that by 2025, ecosystems will account for 30 percent of global premium revenue.


“When you’re a start-up, you can innovate and question long-held assumptions, but you don’t have the scale that an insurer can provide,” said Attia. “Our platform works well in getting new products out to the market and is scalable.”

Slice Labs is now reviewing the emerging markets, which aren’t hampered by “old, outdated infrastructures,” and plans to test the water via a hackathon in southeast Asia.

Collaboration Vs Competition

Insurtech-insurer collaborations suggest that the industry noted the banking sector’s experience, which names the tech disruptors before deciding partnerships, made greater sense commercially.

“It’s an interesting correlation,” said Slice’s managing director for marketing, Emily Kosick.

“I believe the trend worth calling out is that the window for insurers to innovate is much shorter, thanks to the banking sector’s efforts to offer omni-channel banking, incorporating mobile devices and, more recently, intelligent assistants like Alexa for personal banking.

“Banks have bought into the value of these technology partnerships but had the benefit of consumer expectations changing slowly with them. This compares to insurers who are in an ever-increasing on-demand world where the risk is high for laggards to be left behind.”

As with fintechs in banking, Insurtechs initially focused on the retail segment, with 75 percent of business in personal lines and the remainder in the commercial segment.

“Banks have bought into the value of these technology partnerships but had the benefit of consumer expectations changing slowly with them. This compares to insurers who are in an ever-increasing on-demand world where the risk is high for laggards to be left behind.” — Emily Kosick, managing director, marketing, Slice

Those proportions may be set to change, with innovations such as digital commercial insurance brokerage Embroker’s recent launch of the first digital D&O liability insurance policy, designed for venture capital-backed tech start-ups and reinsured by Munich Re.

Embroker said coverage that formerly took weeks to obtain is now available instantly.

“We focus on three main issues in developing new digital business — what is the customer’s pain point, what is the expense ratio and does it lend itself to algorithmic underwriting?” said CEO Matt Miller. “Workers’ compensation is another obvious class of insurance that can benefit from this approach.”

Jason Griswold, co-founder and chief operating officer of Insurtech REIN, highlighted further opportunities: “I’d add a third category to personal and business lines and that’s business-to-business-to-consumer. It’s there we see the biggest opportunities for partnering with major ecosystems generating large numbers of insureds and also big volumes of data.”

For now, insurers are accommodating Insurtech disruption. Will that change?


“Insurtechs have focused on products that regulators can understand easily and for which there is clear existing legislation, with consumer protection and insurer solvency the two issues of paramount importance,” noted Shawn Hanson, litigation partner at law firm Akin Gump.

“In time, we could see the disruptors partner with reinsurers rather than primary carriers. Another possibility is the likes of Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook and Apple, with their massive balance sheets, deciding to link up with a reinsurer,” he said.

“You can imagine one of them finding a good Insurtech and buying it, much as Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods gave it entry into the retail sector.” &

Graham Buck is a UK-based writer and has contributed to Risk & Insurance® since 1998. He can be reached at