By MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/Web editor
An enthusiastic group of what must have been 100 or more workers' comp professionals arrived in Las Vegas early not to enjoy the 80 degree weather by the pool, or try their luck at the craps table, but to listen to noted expert Richard Pimentel discuss the "Seven-Year Itch." The point at which a good disability management, return-to-work program goes bad.
"This is something that I've wanted to talk about for a lot of years," confessed Pimentel.
He told the story of one anonymous but very large corporation--more than 100,000 employees and nearly $60 million in annual workers' comp costs. A decade ago, the company revolutionized its disability program. It won awards. It won over doubters within the organization. It saved more than $20 million in comp costs a year. But today, the success story has turned sour. What happened to that top-notch disability program?
"No one can find it," Pimentel said.
What happened simply was that the driver behind the program retired. This person was "the janitor with all the keys to all the rooms for that program," Pimentel said, or using his other favorite term for such disability advocates, this person had been the "angel." The replacement had none of the keys.
What's more, the former angel's boss--the person who had helped navigate through the corporate ladder and achieve all the necessary compromises--was transferred. Risk management was no longer his duty.
What's worse, the CEO changed. The return-to-work, disability program had been his legacy. He took it with him. The new CEO had a new agenda and wanted his own legacy.
All the people who would defend the program against the people who disliked bringing injured workers back to work all were gone, leaving only the negativity.
What negativity? How can anyone be negative about a program that saved $20 million a year? That had no real fiscal downside?
"You'd have to be totally out of your mind if you're a corporation and you don't want to put one of these programs in," said Pimentel.
But some people do have an "inherent dislike" for these programs, no matter how successful they are, according to Pimentel (and many people in the audience going by their head nods).
There are people (perhaps in your organization) who just don't like injured employees, supervisors who don't like to oversee somebody on light duty, or fellow workers who resent that some colleagues on return-to-work or at home on comp are taking advantage of the system.
The problem within many organizations with their disability management program then is that this negativity wins out--for many of the reasons in Pimentel's anecdote: isolation of the angel, his or her departure, changing executive priorities.
But you could also say that failure can come with thinking you're good enough. As Pimentel pointed out, despite saving $20 million a year at that large corporation, the disability program still cost $30+ million. So to that new CEO--and to everyone else not in love with it--the program was perceived as a "bill."
How can you avoid this from happening (besides never letting your angel retire)? Pimentel spoke for four hours on the topic, so it's hard to encapsulate all that wisdom here. But some bullet-point tips include:
--Don't allow your program's success and survival depend on one or a handful of angels.
--Get support at the local level within your organization.
--Continually measure your success.
--Be in tune with changing executive priorities and corporate needs and couch the disability program's goals and achievements in those.
(Read our write-up and commentary on Tuesday's other preconference symposium, Tools to Develop Your Workers' Compensation Program and Handbook.)
November 18, 2008
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