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Developing Your Game Plan: Wellness and the Industrial Athlete

Posted by Kristy Sands on December 18, 2019 at 11:45 AM

With tightening budgets and pressure to remain staffed, many public sector risk managers have taken an industrial athlete approach to their workers’ compensation programs. The term “industrial athlete” refers to any employee who makes a living using mental and physical talents to perform their job every day. These occupations frequently require strength, flexibility, coordination and endurance, just like a professional athlete. In municipalities, it is easy to determine who might fall into this category: police, fire, EMS, and corrections employees. But, even within the public sector, there are others who customarily exert themselves as part of their essential job duties. Consider school bus drivers – they have to climb stairs, have quick reaction time on the road and aid students who are unable to get in and out of buses.

Savvy risk managers consider their employees (such as deputies, firefighters and school bus drivers) industrial athletes, investing in strength training, setting expectations with medical providers and preparing for unavoidable injuries by setting protocol for prompt treatment and recovery. The outcome of these programs has resulted in fewer lost work days, lower claims frequency, and improved employee-employer relationships throughout the claims process, with a focus on the employee's well-being.

Elite athletes have robust and disciplined training programs to prepare them for the pitch, field or pool. When injured, there are protocols for getting the athlete back to health and minimizing absence from the playing field. However, not every employee in the public sector can conduct rehabilitation at an elite level. We can bring these concepts to the industrial athlete in the public sector. Leadership buy-in is crucial to the success of an industrial athlete program – and leaders love data-driven results. By demonstrating the effectiveness of the industrial athlete model on lost work days, you can help prove out ROI. 

In 2016, with tightening budgets and temporary indemnity costs on the rise, one public sector client determined that a change needed to be made in their program to lower costs and remain suitably staffed to serve their constituents.  Working with state and union leaders, the risk manager instituted an industrial athlete program, clearly defining light duty programming and expectations across departments, resulting in a 9% reduction on benefit days over the previous year. On average, the new model shaved 51 lost work days per 10,000 employees.  

Once a light duty program has been implemented, the next step is to coordinate with the managed care provider to ensure that employees are directed to providers who have the best outcomes for return to work. Working closely with the medical community, and reinforcing a positive mentality regarding capability of the injured worker, the focus shifts from what the injured worker can't do to what they can do. By drawing the focus to the injured worker's capabilities, rather than restrictions, the organization is able to provide light duty tasks. 

By establishing a philosophy that the occupational injury team is able to assist the employee to a recovered state through early medical intervention, understanding the return to work program, and supporting the employee post-recovery (and even pre-injury), public sector risk managers will successfully implement the industrial athlete model.