Is choice the first casualty in the Workers Compensation war?

Every day we make decisions based on insufficient information, informed by our biases and shortcuts, which ironically, we’re also ignorant to. Even in the google and Wikipedia enhanced era of information technology, oversimplification constantly tempts us. I spend most of my time guiding people through the workers compensation maze, and I’ve noticed that oversimplification is pervasive in this domain.  

The Disempowerment of Workers and Employers

It is not uncommon in my work to meet people who feel disempowered. Both workers and employers. Workers who have lost their sense of self identity, their self-esteem and, ultimately, their motivation. I also meet employers who feel like they have no control in an unwieldy system. Their premium is unpredictable and a poor indicator of their commitment to their team. This was certainly the case with Brian who I met last month. He’s a manager of a shop in a chain of stores and was adamant that he wouldn’t lodge a claim despite clearly injuring his shoulder at work. He used to work for another organisation and told me that “he knows how compo works and wants none of it….I’ll get depressed and lose my job and the company will get hit by higher premiums…no one wins”. Brian also thought he needed a week off, but was worried about how his staff would perceive his taking “time off on compo”.

Brian’s case is typical, but his insight is unique.  He expressed concerns for himself and his employer. That’s unusual. His experience has been that it doesn’t take long in the workers compensation system to lose your humanity and your employer’s money. What was motivating Brian’s decision making? It’s always tempting to draw a simple conclusion but the fact is, I had just met Brian and although we had rapport, we didn’t yet have a relationship. Guessing at his motivations was tempting, I love a simple solution as much as the next bloke, but do I really know Brian at this point?

“For every complex problem there’s a simple solution, and it’s usually wrong” 
H.L. Mencken

I’m a parent, a business owner, a client, a student, a teacher, a physiotherapist, a counsellor, a husband and a son. All of these roles involve efforts to persuade and to motivate. I find myself trying to motivate others to learn, to recover, to re-engage, to change entrenched beliefs, to manage pain and to better relate to each other. Inferring and analysing the motivation behind others’ decisions is an ongoing and daily exercise.

Edward Deci is a director of the human motivation program at the University of Rochester and co-author of WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO with Richard Flaste.  They open their book by stating that:

Control is an easy answer. It assumes the promise of reward or the threat of a punishment will make the offenders comply. And it sounds tough, so it feels reassuring to people who believe things have gone awry but have neither the time not the energy to think about the problems, let alone do something about them.

There’s a lot of “tough talk” in the workers compensation world. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve heard that have been about how to ‘motivate’ someone by exerting control. Compliance is the goal of control and the motivation is provided in the form of legislative threats, financial sanctions or even ‘a good talking to’.

Deci highlights that people often perceive motivation as something externally imposed. That there is a misconception that skilful coaches or teachers motivate others with carefully chosen words. In the workers’ compensation domain, documentation saturated with legal jargon typically conveys these words. Alternatively, an overworked supervisor or insurance claims manager, lacking time for a relationship with the managed workers, may convey them verbally.

Deci argues that the price of control and compliance is “steep”. He acknowledges that some people are oriented towards complying with the rules but also suggests that compliance and defiance often co-exist, often subtly or even passively. Reduced discretionary effort can be hard to notice. He argues that self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of responsibility, ownership, healthy behaviour and, durable or lasting change.

Higgins’ extensive book on motivation, Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works, teaches us that motivation and simple are not words that sit well together. Higgins suggests wariness with respect to “the hedonic principle”. This is the principle that says motivation is just about applying pleasure and pain to achieve a desired result.  Higgins warns us that although pleasure seeking or pain avoidance are generally accepted principles in life. there is more to motivation than the promise of reward or the threat of punishment (aka carrot and stick).

Higgins believes that:

… the best answer to the question of what it is that people want is that they want to be effective. People want to be effective at having desired outcomes (value), but they also want to be effective at establishing what’s real (truth) and at managing what happens (control).

… which is compatible with Deci’s idea that motivation is optimised by creating autonomy-supportive environments.

Once a workers compensation claim is made and the process takes hold, it seems to me that control, effectiveness and truth (in the sense if understanding the process and all of its rules) are easily compromised.

Consideration of Deci and Higgins has made me aware of the importance of choice in the development of ownership, care, acceptance and personal ‘drive’. People, they state, are more motivated when they have some control of what is happening and the best way to feel in control is to feel free to choose. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any rules or take away all external pressure but burying people in too many externally applied rules and restricting any choice is surely the way to suck people dry of motivation or any will to effort.

So is our workers compensation system autonomy supportive?

To borrow from the popular idiom that the first casualty of war is the truth, I’ve found myself wondering if the first casualty of workers compensation is choice?

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