Column: Roger's Soapbox

A Hellish Labyrinth

By: | December 14, 2016 • 2 min read

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected]

The subject today is one of the great insurance names of all time: Franz Kafka.

Yes, that Franz Kafka, the writer of novels such as “The Trial,” and “The Metamorphosis,” that few of us have read; the man for whom the word Kafkaesque was invented.

“What’s Kafkaesque,” Frederick R. Karl, author of a critical biography of Kafka, told “The New York Times,” “is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.”


What led Kafka to formulate this hellish world view? The answer may be partly found in his career in assessing insurance claims.

Having qualified as a lawyer in 1906, Kafka spent a little less than a year with an Italian insurer in Prague, Assicurazioni Generali. He couldn’t hack the hours, and so joined the company that would employ him for the rest of his life, the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. Snappy name.

Kafka investigated and assessed compensation for personal injury claims. He despised what he referred to as his “bread job,” i.e., work carried out strictly to pay the bills.

He was good at it, though. Rapid promotions led to him carrying out much of the office work. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

The world therefore owes the insurance industry a debt for providing Kafka with a morbid and intolerable backdrop to his life.

Kafka wrote the company’s annual report, work I too have carried out for the bread, man. It would have been the misery that accompanies claims, rather than that attendant on writing annual reports, that drove Kafka to chronicle hopeless despair with such insight.

In 1985, the BBC broadcast a film written by Alan Bennett (of “Beyond the Fringe”), called “The Insurance Man.” Daniel Day-Lewis plays a cerebral Dr. Kafka, claims adjuster, in a role based directly on the working life of the great man.

In Bennett’s imagination, the Workers’ Accident is a nightmarish, labyrinthine building in which claimants spend as much as a year wending their way through the bureaucratic maze, the goal an appearance before The Tribunal, which seems to deny every claim it is given.

One member of the Tribunal, described in the cast list as “Angry Doctor,” is morally opposed to paying claims of any sort.

“We cannot compensate people for being thrown out of paradise,” he says, adding: “Blessed are the maimed, for they shall be compensated.”

A 1991 movie, “Kafka,” starring Jeremy Irons, portrays the office environment as “a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape but insanity.”

The world therefore owes the insurance industry a debt for providing Kafka with a morbid and intolerable backdrop to his life.

The movies are denunciations of the claims business. Claims managers in the films display what we would consider morally indefensible behavior: smoking in the office and groping the secretaries.

Bennett’s movie ends with Kafka working part-time in a factory, which is essentially true.

In 1912, he briefly managed a manufacturing company. In a twist that insurance people will most keenly appreciate, the factory manufactured asbestos. &

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

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