“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
“So, how long do you need to be off work?” This was the question posed to me by the urgent care physician following a brief examination and discussion of my back pain symptoms. What? Why are you asking me? Aren’t you supposed to know, doc? I informed the doctor that I had a sedentary job and that I had no problem sitting but that walking and standing were quite painful. I explained that I would be able to make accommodations to get myself to and from work, so I didn’t really need any time off. Thankfully, my back healed within a couple of weeks.
This recent experience made me wonder how many of the claimants I had dealt with in my more than 20 years as a disability professional had also been asked this question by their treatment providers. Had I been someone less familiar with disability issues or less confident in my ability to adapt to meet my temporary mobility challenges, I probably would have given the doctor a ballpark figure of, say, two weeks. Chances are, he would’ve written me a note to stay home from work for at least a week. And what good would this have done me? Sure, I could have squeezed a short “staycation” out of the deal and binge-watched Netflix, but I probably would not have recovered as quickly, and I would have fallen far behind in my work and overburdened my co-workers. All these factors would have escalated my trepidation about returning to work.
While some people would have taken advantage of this opportunity, I believe that many questionable disability claim durations are driven by claimant fear and misconceptions. Anxiety, feeling as if they have lost control over their lives, and being unfamiliar with and intimidated by trying to navigate disability and medical systems create needless absence from work. While nobody wants claimants returning to work prematurely and jeopardizing their recovery, which can happen with certain conditions, surgical procedures or treatments, there are many more nebulous conditions (i.e., back strain, fatigue and pain) that are primarily self-reported and have no definitive duration guidelines. So is there anything we as claim professionals can do to help such disability claimants take a more empowered role in their recovery and return to work?
Yes, there is! We can build claimant self-efficacy by respectfully challenging their misconceptions and helping them overcome the victim mentality we often see claimants falling into. Simply defined, self-efficacy is what an individual believes he or she can accomplish using his or her skills under certain circumstances. Self-efficacy differs from self-esteem in that it’s a judgment of specific capabilities rather than a general feeling of self-worth.
The theory of self-efficacy was developed by Albert Bandura, an early cognitive psychologist who, along with others in the field, found that an individual’s self-efficacy plays a major role in how he or she approaches goals, tasks and challenges and makes decisions. The theory proposes that individuals are more likely to engage in activities for which they have high self-efficacy and less likely to engage in those they do not – performance and motivation are in part determined by how effective peoplebelievethey can be. The amount of research supporting self-efficacy motivation is high, which shows that the theory is not only valid but reliable. Life is full of challenges, so people must have a strong sense of personal efficacy to persevere, especially when faced with recovery from an illness or injury.
Bandura and his colleagues have found that people with a strong sense of self-efficacy:
- View challenging problems as tasks to be mastered;
- Develop deeper interest in the activities in which they participate;
- Form a stronger sense of commitment to their interests and activities; and
- Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments.
In contrast, people with a weak sense of self-efficacy:
- Avoid challenging tasks;
- Believe that difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities;
- Focus on personal failings and negative outcomes; and
- Quickly lose confidence in personal abilities.
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