Early care can help mitigate mental issues tied to workplace injuries

Workplace injuries often can lead to mental health issues, including opioid use and even suicide, experts said during a panel discussion Friday at the Workers Compensation Research Institute’s 36th Annual Issues & Research Conference.

To help workers better cope after an injury, they recommend mental health interventions and “warm handoffs” to employee assistance programs.

“People who were injured at work have an increased risk of both opioid dependence and depression, which is what eventually leads people to die from suicide and from drug overdoses,” said Les Boden, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Mr. Boden has analyzed the long-term effects of workplace injuries on workers for years, finding that those who have suffered a lost-time injury are more likely to receive Social Security disability insurance and die earlier than their non-injured counterparts.

A nearly 20-year study of about 100,000 injured workers in New Mexico, found that women who suffered a workplace injury with lost time were nearly three times more likely to die from a drug-related death and two times more likely to die from suicide than women who did not sustain a work injury, Mr. Boden said. Men also experienced a higher likelihood of suicide and drug-related death after suffering a workplace injury, though the results were not as significant “because men start from higher rates of mortality for drugs and suicide,” he said.

A study in West Virginia produced results that nearly mirrored those from New Mexico, Mr. Boden said.

As a clinical psychologist at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, Dr. Kenneth Larsen treats workers who have sustained a mental injury such as post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of a workplace injury. He said that showing care and providing early mental health treatment is key to a faster return to work.

“You have to have an approach with injured workers that they are human beings, that you have compassion and care for them, and teach them the competence that they need to get back to work,” he said. “Companies that reach out and … communicate that back to workers, (their workers) get back to work much quicker than at companies with a hands-off approach. That seems to add insult to injury.”

In 2017, electric company Southern California Edison Co., created an advocacy program to help return its injured employees to work and provide assistance for external factors, such as depression, comorbidities, and financial or family problems that can often accompany a workplace injury.

“We saw that, when people have an injury there are other things happening in their lives that prevent them from recovering as quickly as they can,” said Mary Christiansen, the company’s Newbury Park, California-based workers compensation claim manager. The company reached out to its employee assistance program vendor and developed a “warm transfer” system to the program.

For example, a workers compensation claim representative will have a conversation with an injured worker about external struggles she may be experiencing during her recovery. After receiving permission from the employee, the claims rep will reach out to the EAP contact to explain what assistance the employee may need and facilitate that “warm handoff,” Ms. Christiansen said.

Since the program’s implementation, the company’s overall claims costs have continued to decline, she said, and workers compensation claims that have historically come after an employee has taken Family and Medical Leave Act leave are also down

This article was first published by Business Insurance.

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