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Employer communication with workers-both before and after a workplace injury-can reduce the costs of workers compensation claims, a new survey reports.

Communication, concern and caring have "a halo effect" on the entire workers comp experience, according to a recent national study conducted by the Chicago office of The Gallup Organization.

Those approaches help a worker develop a positive frame of mind that produces optimal outcomes, summarized researchers of the Princeton, N.J.-based organization.

Specifically, workers who said they received pre-injury communications from their employers about workers comp policies and procedures were more satisfied with their treatment, recovery and experience in returning to work, the study said.

Employers' communication efforts and demonstrations of concern after an injury-through calls, visits and even flowers-also had a positive impact on worker satisfaction. Those workers returned to work sooner and were less likely to seek out a lawyer for help with pursuing a claim, according to the study, which was sponsored by Intracorp, a Philadelphia-based managed care company.

Conversely, workers who received no prior communication were out of work longer, had significantly lower satisfaction levels and were more likely to seek out a lawyer, the study reported.

"This study further reinforces the need for all of us-employers, providers and managed care organizations-to begin thinking of injured workers as a primary customer in the workers comp equation," Maddy Bowling, Intracorp's senior vp of workers compensation managed care, said in a statement.

Gallup's 1997 study was based on 514 interviews with workers who had experienced job-related injuries or illnesses within the past three years. The sample was drawn from a group of 8,500 workers in 10 states.

A typical respondent was a man, who had not completed college and was working in a service or labor job for a midsize company with 101 to 499 employees, often for four years or less. His average annual income was $36,670.

Approximately 25% of the respondents had back injuries, 11% had broken bones, and 10% had cuts. The most common work-related illnesses were stress, 45%, and allergies, 17%.

Researchers found some key differences compared with results of a 1994 study. The number of employers offering injury-prevention programs increased to 52% in 1997, up from 43% in 1994. Also, return-to-work programs increased to 41% from 33%. A return-to-work program cut in half the likelihood that a worker would be out one month or longer and reduced the likelihood that he would hire an attorney.

The number of employers that kept in touch with workers during their recovery dropped to 32% in 1997, down from 50% in 1994.

"These findings suggest that employers are increasingly likely to understand the need for injury prevention and return-to-work programs in workers comp," Robert Schussel, vp and managing director of research for The Gallup Organization in Chicago, said in a statement. "However, in the process, employers are forgetting the 'human element'-letting injured workers know that they are concerned about their recovery and return to work."

The study also points to some opportunities for employers. For example, only 19% of respondents said their employers recommended doctors or hospitals to use for treatment, even though 76% viewed such recommendations as positive or neutral.

This finding represents "a huge opportunity," especially because workers comp outcomes "are most positive when treatment is provided by occupational health specialists with track records of achieving positive, sustained return-to-work results," Ms. Bowling said.

For a free copy of the 1997 Injured Worker Study Report, call Intracorp at 215-761-7144.