Since March 2020, life has changed dramatically. Everyone is concerned with COVID-19 claims, but no one is talking about increased work-from-home exposure. While more and more employers have allowed employees to work from home, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced entire companies to close their doors and switch to work-from-home capabilities. Companies scrambled to transition technology and keep their virtual doors open. Court settings and depositions have moved to Zoom. One would think this would cause the number of workers’ compensation claims to decrease significantly; however, we have seen an increase in workers’ compensation claims in the work-from-home area.
Many employers have found it very challenging to defend these claims for a myriad of reasons. Employers were forced to transition into a work-from-home landscape without warning, and the lack of preparation created a great deal of uncertainty. Meetings were established to put specific precautions and standards in place in an attempt keep claims costs down.
Consider a recent Indiana case. A plaintiff was asleep in bed, well after work hours, on the date of her alleged injury. The plaintiff placed her cellphone on her dresser and went to sleep for the night. She testified that she heard her phone notification ring for a message during the middle of the night, causing her to wake up, walk to her dresser, and answer. The plaintiff then tripped and fell over her dog, breaking her ankle. The injury was determined to be a compensable claim because the plaintiff said she woke up to answer a work text. This is dangerous territory we are entering if such an action is considered a compensable work activity.
So what can employers and carriers do to set better parameters for their staff? Here are five suggestions to use as guideposts.
Follow up with your team, workers, and your peers. The need for communication is at an all-time high while people search for connection. People are no longer in the office and no longer see familiar faces with whom to have a quick chat in the coffee area. Institutional fatigue is more apparent, and it is important to remember that people need human interaction to keep their morale up. Positive mindsets adapt to change and can thrive in uncertain circumstances, which helps build resilience. The best way to convey positive morale is to send a quick text or email to set the day’s tone. You may need to discuss the day’s tasks, but what a perfect time to also add something positive to let everyone know we are all in this together. After all, laughter is the best medicine, and we need that interaction as well.
When teams are motived and engaged, it is beneficial to both parties. Set virtual coffee or social hours to check-in and make sure employees’ technology is working appropriately. At virtual meetings, ask everyone to turn their webcams on when possible, and act like it is another day. Keep them motivated with incentives for positive productivity at home. Find humor and laugh together. One of the best ways to build camaraderie during times of uncertainty is to unite on common ground. No makeup? No worries. Children in the background of your meeting? Let them say hi. Pets walking across a keyboard? Introduce them. The more human we can become during times of stress, the more we increase our empathy and ability to collaborate and work together during what comes next.
Set parameters for work hours for the staff. Have your team keep a log of the items they work on daily if they do not have a system to track them. Some systems can see user activities for time on/offline. Anything noticed after “office hours” should be discussed promptly and discouraged in a firm but caring manner. Encourage work/life balance.
Create a buddy system. Pair each person up with another. What you will find is that this becomes a helpful way to keep the team interacting behind the scenes. It is often uplifting to have someone share that if a teammate needs assistance with a specific task, they can help. Remind everyone that asking for help is not admitting failure; it is putting the customer first to complete the daily tasks at hand. This keeps everyone on target for their workload, as well as preventing undue stress.
Encourage people to take time off. Institutional fatigue breeds when there is ongoing instability in an organization during times of uncertainty. When employees take vacation time, let them unplug and be totally off the grid, as much as possible. Discuss a “We’ve got you” mindset to alleviate scrambling around after hours.
Keep a team calendar. Alert the primary contact(s) the person interacts with daily on any specific accounts that she is taking a vacation in advance. Increased communication will help put everyone’s minds at ease. More importantly, lead by example. If you take time off, then be truly off. Employees are always watching.
Any way you look at it, clear communication is critical. Pair your connection with compassion and understanding for your team. Check in, ask questions, and do less talking and more listening. Do not be afraid to change things up and move your staff meetings to Friday. Friday is the best day to help send everyone off to start their weekends with a smile. If you have a weekly meeting that everyone calls in to and you are out, keep it scheduled to encourage everyone to discuss recent wins. Acknowledge that this time impacts each of us in different ways, and we are available and approachable just as we were in the office. With a little more care and concern, we can mitigate dangers in the at-home workplace.