/məˈlɪŋɡə/ – Pretending to be ill in order to escape duty or work

I hear the term thrown around at lot, particularly when I work with HR teams who have people on workers compensation.  I find it challenging that many HR managers believe that there are many people who malinger. 

As a person who talks about how we might approach workers compensation differently, my brain can’t help but question the assumption.  Are they really malingerers?  Or are we operating on an assumption because we think people should return to work in a specified timeframe?  If they don’t comply with that timeframe, we assume they are malingering.

From a psychological perspective, if I am trying to assess behaviour utilising the DSM criterion for whether someone is truly malingering, the decision-making process is actually quite challenging and fraught with difficulty.  There are certain decision points where the absence of information leads to an assumption that a person is lying.  At every point of a decision tree, you expect an option of yes or no – however, in this type of assessment my only option is ‘Yes’, leading to this person is a liar. Then my only decision is what ‘sort’ of liar!  It is completely biased, and I believe that it unreasonably assumes that the person is guilty until proven innocent.

I find the whole notion about malingering to be quite overused in many organisations. 

Years ago, I worked with Centrelink and many of my co-workers would become very cynical about people who walked in the door.  I decided that if I ever reached the point where I felt that everybody walking in the door was there for a reason that wasn’t real or valid, it was time that I moved on.

I think this happens in a lot of organisations.  We get used to hearing about people who are off on workers compensation leave, especially if you work in a HR area, and it is very difficult to determine who is legitimate.

But I wonder why it matters.  Why do we feel the need to judge people and their circumstances? I find that if you approach people with dignity and respect and take what they tell you on face value, then people are just pleased that somebody is listening to them and taking time to understand what their challenges are.  They really do appreciate the fact that these people are willing to help them.

I wonder whether this perception that we have of ‘malingering’ is just that, a perception.

It’s time to bust the myth!

2020 has given us a great example of how we need to react to situations when we believe that it will cause bigger problems.  COVID-19 itself is invisible, but we know that it is dangerous for us and our community.  

What if we accepted that anybody who has to go off on workers compensation must be really unwell and truly have a psychological or physiological injury.  Then we could treat them with the same respect that we would if somebody told us that they had to stay home because of COVID.  We can accept that there is a real and present danger to this person’s mental or physical health if they were to return to the workplace.

What if we approach them as if everything that they said was true, because that is, after all, their experience? 

I wonder if that would make a significant enough difference that we would stop believing that people are making workers compensation claims because they think it’s ‘easy money’.  I have worked with many claimants and there is absolutely nothing easy about it. In fact, it is probably one of the most demoralising experiences a person can go through and the process itself could create a traumatic injury.

I want to challenge you to try approaching these people differently.  Accept what they are telling you is their reality.  As a fellow human being, they deserve respect and encouragement for having the courage to stand up for themselves, in the face of a system that treats them like a criminal.

Reframe . . .  Respect . . .  Recover!

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