NAWCJ

Loss and Change



By David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims in Florida

This article is reprinted from the http://flojcc.blogspot.com/ with permission

 

The topic of telecommuting has become a discussion point recently. Obviously the virus, “stay-at-home” orders, and more are influencing this. Telecommuting is happening on a grander scale than ever before, but the idea is not really new. The acceptance of it perhaps is the significant change.

I recall being stuck behind a bridge closure in the 1990s that prevented daily access to my office. I found I was able to draft some documents, and answer phone calls, but my abilities were limited to what case materials I had fortuitously happened to bring home before the closure. I was not able to access my office files remotely, and the idea of email had just become “a thing.” My productivity was significantly impacted. I look back in awe and wonder at how far we have come.

Since the COVID-19/Wuhan/Sars-C0V-2 (COVID-19) has invaded our lives and consciousness, I have not worked from home. In fact, the effect for me has been quite the opposite, with more hours than normal in the office (there is suddenly nowhere else for me to go). Today though, there are functions of many jobs that are amenable to telecommuting, and others not so much perhaps. I hear stories of people adjusting and adapting, striving to find paths to accomplish more from home.

Recently, WorkersCompensation.com reported that Not Everyone Has Equal Opportunity to Work From Home. This conclusion is gleaned from a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on data a few years old. The data appears to be self-reported, with individuals representing their perceptions of individual personal opportunities for telecommuting. The report provides indicia of disparate participation opportunities for various demographics.

One of the critical points noted is that “education is a key indicator of telecommuting opportunities.” Those with a high school education were least likely to have a ready telecommuting option. Those with a college degree or more reported this ability at the highest rates in the survey. Professional occupations, perhaps predictably, were more likely to perceive themselves with the ability to telecommute.

The article also notes that some workers do not have resources. It notes software requirements and security protocols for protected or proprietary information as a barrier. But, on a more basic level there may be issues with hardware (might some of us not have a home computer? the Census Bureau reports only 87% of American households have a desktop or laptop computer). The same report says that only 62% of American households have the combination of “a desktop or laptop, a handheld computer or smartphone, and a broadband Internet subscription.” The fact is, not all households appear equally equipped for a telecommuting experience.

In another story, TechRepublic reported that remote workers may present risks of cybersecurity. The threat of computer hackers, worms, viruses, and more are ever-present. This year, I wrote on these pages about cybersecurity, See Cybersecurity 2020’s Hot Topic and Cybersecurity 2020 Again. The lengths to which bad actors will go to co-opt data and steal is truly fascinating. The simple math is that if one individual is remotely accessing an employer’s network, there is risk. With each additional worker doing so, the risk of data interruption increases. This is another stress point of the change, affecting both convenience of the employee and the stress level of the employer.

Thus, the threats and risks seem to be potentially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pressures to telecommute. While the physical proximity of working in the office may currently present a set of health threats, the telecommuting paradigm may simply substitute in a different set of technology challenges. They are not without solutions. This article provides some recommendations for minimizing the cybersecurity threats and challenges. Primary among them the virtual private network (VPN). Is access to that tool widespread among employees? Or, is that yet another factor that may impact any particular employee’s ability to effectively telecommute?

Finally, a March 28, 2020 article on the British Broadcasting Corporation site (BBC) lamented the COVID-19 effect on “millions of people” who have “lost their jobs.” First of all, that tells us that those telecommuting have a duty to be grateful. Working from home may present a myriad of challenges, but the alternatives seem markedly more stark. The story leads with an admission that the unemployment figures, as significant as they are, likely do not even account for the employees that are “gig workers, the self-employed and other freelancers.” There are government aid programs through which those less-traditional workers may receive some modicum of support, but it is perhaps more difficult to quantify the effects of COVID-19 in the less traditional work paradigms.

Other than providing a contrast, the real value of the BBC article is its focus on the natural human “emotional reaction” to job loss. That should not be a new subject for the workers’ compensation community. A great many of the individuals injured on the job are unable to return to work (temporarily) or are unable to return to a former occupation (permanently) as a result. In this regard, emotional reaction, the cause of a job loss is perhaps an ancillary fact. The critical fact is likely not the cause of lost or changed work, but the loss of that work itself.

As we learn through the impact in this COVID-19 setting, perhaps we better understand those who currently face uncertainty and struggle it has caused. But, also perhaps we better understand all injured workers who face similar work-circumstance changes? The impact of change may affect them disparately. Just as workers reacting to COVID-19 may find themselves more or less able to adjust and telecommute, might injured workers generally be expected to have different abilities, capacities, and reactions to the loss from a work accident? Perhaps we learn to commiserate with and and have compassion for those whose lives are interrupted, impacted, or changed by the occurrence of an event, accident, or disease?

In the COVID-19 sense, one counselor calls the resulting unemployment “a crisis within a crisis.” The economic impact will be felt by many who never suffer the actual COVID infection. They will have to deal with “processing a loss,” that is dealing with the stress of change and separation. My blog has already been focused upon Stress in the Time of COVID, the challenges of being “essential,” the stress of change to a new paradigm, and the fact that we will each know someone infected (some of us will eventually, unfortunately know someone profoundly affected).

Once we realize in either employment or personally that we are “processing a loss,” one may be able to predict and understand that “stages of grief.” This leads, perhaps, to an ability “to acknowledge the depth of their loss,” and work through the emotions that accompany it. There are likely to be emotions, including anger, from the circumstance, the timing, or one’s own personal perceptions. COVID-19 is likely to have profound impacts that are vocational, professional, and emotional.

The BBC article stresses the need to retain composure and separate “elements in their situation they can and cannot control.” The suggestion is that focus on issues that are not within your control may not be productive, while focus on those you can control may lead to appropriate actions and reactions that will both help with recovering from the loss and building a sense of accomplishment. The BBC suggests that it may be helpful to focus on the longer term outcome from the recovery rather than the present day, more temporary, effects and reactions. That does not mean ignoring the present impacts and complications, but looking to the future and the potential for recovery may lead to a more positive outlook.

These seem to be suggestions worthy of consideration. Admittedly, there is no one way to deal with stress, or a single way to accept and deal with loss. But, there is perhaps hope in understanding why we feel as we do in a loss. Perhaps this understanding is worthwhile in the sense of how COVID-19 is affecting us personally, immediately. Perhaps, also, it is worthwhile for us in this community to be reminded of our feelings and emotions in reacting to this COVID-19 impact.

Work and occupation are part of what defines us. Loss or change of that identity may affect us, as COVID-19 is teaching. But our very occupation and community is focused on people who similarly, on a personal not pandemic level, suffer the change and loss that may follow a work accident. There may be similar a loss for an employee or employer, feelings of change, remorse, and loss. How each perceives and works through the aftermath of such an event may require the community’s patience, compassion, and civility? Perhaps, indeed, there is much we will all learn from COVID.