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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: The psychology of recovery

September 30, 2002
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In my June ISHN column, I told you about the diagnosis of my prostate cancer and the proposed treatment - a radical retropubic prostatectomy. I drew parallels between a cancer diagnosis and an occupational injury. Now I'm in the midst of post-surgery recovery - and I'm finding instructive similarities and differences between recovering from cancer surgery versus an occupational injury.

1) Don't rush it

I heard convalescence from prostate surgery was painful and arduous, but it was worse than I anticipated. The three-day hospital stay was a breeze compared to the following weeks of post-surgery recuperation.

I should have stayed in the hospital longer. My rush to go home and get some welcomed sleep led to extra pain and discomfort. I won't bore you with the details, but the lesson is important for all kinds of recovery. Be patient and appreciate the need for incremental healing. This is a critical lesson for the doctors and hospital staff, also. They should not let the naeve wishes and optimism of their patients overcome their empirical observations and more experienced judgment.

2) Set reasonable goals

My impatience to leave the hospital was fueled by a goal to attend and participate in the Professional Development Conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). I was scheduled to give a day-long, pre-conference ASSE workshop just 16 days after surgery, and I had no time to lose. Yes, I gave that workshop and a keynote address two days later, and I was very glad to be able to make that trip.

Upon reflection, though, I realize (as many had advised me) the goal I set and reached was not realistic, nor in my best interest. I'm convinced I slowed the recovery process because I tried to do too much, too fast. Bottom line: Goals are critical motivators for recovery from illness or injury, but be realistic.

3) Seek social support

Attending the ASSE conference was a "psychological high." It might have hindered my physical recovery, but did wonders for my psychological state, including my self-esteem, self-efficacy, perception of personal control, optimism, and sense of belonging and interdependence.

I do not point out this inconsistency between mind and body healing to pit medicine against psychological science. I still believe the trip slowed my overall recovery and helped to make the month following surgery the longest in my life. But there is power in social support. I presumed a large number of people expected and wanted me to make it to the ASSE conference, and I believed I would make some worthwhile contributions if I participated.

What about an employee recovering from a workplace injury? How often does an injured worker feel embarrassed by personal injury and is not excited about returning to work? Perhaps the injury resulted in a supervisor or work team losing a prize or financial bonus. At the very least, a personal injury is viewed as a mistake or defect, raising those loss-control numbers that reflect a company's safety performance.

In many work cultures it's only natural to sense shame and interpersonal rejection following a lost-time injury. Be aware of this, because it's likely to retard both psychological and physical recovery, and delay a return to work.

4) Watch your back

A workshop leader and past president of ASSE recently told his audience: "Even if an employee loses an arm in a mishap, disciplinary (meaning negative) consequences must be rendered in order to send the message that unsafe behavior will not be tolerated."

This is the kind of typical safety management perspective (and work culture) that slows a person's enthusiastic return to work after a lost-time injury. This approach makes the worker the problem, rather than part of the solution.

The same amount of caring for my return to work after cancer surgery should be given to individuals recovering from a workplace injury. As with my cancer, several factors contribute to personal injury, including at-risk behavior. But unlike my cancer, most of these contributing factors can be discovered through conversations with peers. But this kind of positive learning experience is unlikely if injured workers expect negative consequences when recovering.

5) "Raise your sail"

As detailed in my ISHN column this past June, I "raised my sail" regarding my cancer, and "the winds of grace" kept me going. They haven't stopped. Friends, colleagues and total strangers have called and emailed me with advice, well-wishes and thanks for my past contributions.

Especially supportive have been communications from others who have experienced the same illness and recovery challenges. It's so easy to feel isolated and depressed during the inactive phase of convalescence. Hearing from people who have experienced the same distress and discomfort, and who have recovered, can be extremely reinforcing and encouraging.

Recovery from a lost-time injury undoubtedly results in the same kind of despair, isolation and helplessness I experienced. But how much supportive networking does an injured worker receive from coworkers, managers and other employees who sustained and recovered from a similar injury?

How often do people inquire about an injured worker's recovery progress and offer encouragement for a speedy return to work?

Such actively caring communication can certainly be stifled in a workplace that puts discipline above caring. The work culture in a command-and-control environment can not only increase the embarrassment, rejection and social isolation felt by the victim of a workplace incident, it can also repress supportive social networking from managers and coworkers. Resisting this negative cultural influence and offering genuine words of concern and caring to an employee recovering from a lost-time injury will likely benefit both mind and body healing and hasten the person's return to productive work. It will also enable the types of communication needed to identify and change the modifiable risk factors that contributed to the injury in the first place.

Bottom line: Whether recovering from illness or injury, people receive invaluable benefit from supportive social networking. Please don't let personal biases or a discipline-focused work culture deter you from initiating an actively caring conversation with an employee who is homebound with a workplace injury.

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