Injuries happen they happen on the job, on the road and at home. While the trauma of an injury is severe, the rehabilitation process can be just as grueling. The boss’s reaction at work can either make the situation easier or more painful.
According to Michael Delahanty, D.O., the medical director of Edwin Shaw Rehab and chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Akron General Medical Center, prevention of injury should be an employer’s first consideration.
“Look at workplace injuries and make interventions to reduce the risk of recurrence,” Delahanty says. “For an injured employee, it is important that the employer help that worker return to work and become productive as soon as possible.”
Something as simple as a phone call lets employees know you value them, he says. Talk to the worker and ask how he or she is doing, but do not put pressure on them to return. Let the employee know you are interested in his or her health and welfare. That helps even if it is not a long-term absence or rehab situation.
Smart Business spoke with Delahanty about what business owners can do to help employees recover from serious injuries or illnesses.
Why is flexibility important in rehabilitation?
Flexibility on the employer’s part is important to help workers recover. But, the employee must be flexible, too. People get out of the habit of going to work. If they stay in that groove, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to get back to a regular work schedule. But the employer should avoid demanding that a worker come back full time, doing all the work he or she did before. This can create difficulties for a recovering worker, and you end up with an adversarial relationship. Start with a modified schedule or modified duties. In the end, you’ll have a happier employee who gets back to full productivity sooner.
Are there mental/emotional concerns as well as physical ones?
Definitely. The less satisfied and less empowered employees feel, the more likely they are to prolong their period of unemployment and not return to work. Most workers who are off the job will experience frustration. Being off work is stressful it is financially and emotionally difficult. Most people want to get back to work. After extended illness, some people become clinically depressed. The longer they are off work, the more likely this is. Chronic pain and disability meet the traditional definition of depression. In general, lower educational levels, lower job satisfaction and the presence of other issues in a worker’s life put him or her at greater risk. It’s a challenge for employers to deal with all of these aspects.
Isn’t workers’ compensation supposed to address much of this?
In my experience, the workers’ compensation program is frustrating to employers, employees and doctors. Doctors are asked to make a judgment about when workers are able to return full time to their duties. But determining a worker’s condition is not an exact science. It is a lot easier to phase in an employee’s work. Remember, medicine is not an exact science. Under workers’ comp, 80 to 90 percent of workers will get better and return to work no matter what we do. The other 10 percent will require a longer course of treatment and will be at greater risk of not returning.
What are common work-related injuries?
Back ailments are among the most common injuries at work. The whole scientific basis of the concept of back injury is very much in question. A fracture or herniated disk is obvious. But it is hard to get an objective finding on a stiff, sore or painful back. Is the pain in the head or in the back? Well, it’s both, and both have to be treated simultaneously or the patient will not get better. In general, bed rest is not recommended after back injuries unless there are clinical indications like fractures. Patients should be as active as they can tolerate. Passive physical therapy like ultrasound or hot packs are unlikely to help much. The physical therapist should get the patient as active as he or she can be under supervision, of course. Exercise is the best medicine. When a worker is off the job and it appears his or her recovery and return to work is being delayed, it is always good to have a second opinion, no matter how good the doctor, surgeon, chiropractor or physical therapist is. Build a second opinion into the company’s program through the human resources department. High-risk employees and those with other issues are the ones who need it the most, early on. The sooner they get a second opinion, the better.
Are there physical facilities, beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act, that one should provide?
For some employees, allowing them to stand on an anti-fatigue mat will make a huge difference. A bib-type lumbar corset can help workers who lift repeatedly. The employer should be flexible in providing conditions that will help the worker get back to work. Workplace ergonomics was gospel a few years ago. But the science behind it is not that great. What works for you after a back injury might not work for me.
MICHAEL DELAHANTY, D.O., Fellow, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, is the medical director of Edwin Shaw Rehab and chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Akron General Medical Center. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.