Helping Washington’s Workforce Stay At Work

State government isn’t always seen as a likely catalyst for helping employers – or protecting jobs. Yet over the last year, our team has been working with policy leaders and government officials in Washington State to do just that.

Quinn Thomas was recently hired by the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) to rebuild an advertising and public awareness campaign for an innovative new program called Stay At Work. Each year, more than three million Americans miss work because of a workplace injury. Most are in high-risk industries such as construction, agriculture, and manufacturing. These injuries lead to millions in lost wages and reduced earnings potential in industries vital to the region’s economic stability.

Washington State’s workers compensation system is unique. It is one of only four states in the U.S. acting as the primary insurer rather than a private insurance company. As administrators of the state’s workers’ compensation system, L&I operates like a large insurance company – providing medical coverage and wage replacement to workers who get injured on the job.

This is where healthcare plays a significant role in solving what is truly an economic problem. Medical data show that injured workers recover faster if they stay connected with their workplace. The use of “modified” and “transitional” jobs by employers actually reduces the likelihood a worker will end up on long-term disability programs.

Most importantly, this singular rehabilitative solution helps reduce the overall tax burden on employers while helping to keep premiums in balance by providing a level of rate stability.

What’s clear is that keeping injured workers connected to the workplace is a vital part of ensuring Washington has a stable, productive workforce. What’s less clear is how you develop a program to do so – and how to make sure people know about it.

Unlocking a new communications strategy

Anyone that has navigated the complexities of Washington’s workers compensation systems knows it comes with a few hurdles. As our team helped stated officials design a communications campaign, we worked closely with program leadership and field staff to analyze a fairly complex system – one that doesn’t often lend itself easily to traditional media strategies.

Developing the Stay At Work campaign required us to carefully assess diverse audiences, analyze desired (versus effective) messages, and identify ways to generate measurable behavior change. From the start, we had to do this for a new program with low public awareness.

Our partners at DHM Research helped conduct several studies of the local labor markets to determine what perceptions (and misperceptions) were preventing participation in the state’s return to work initiatives. What we found was intriguing:

  • High favorability for the program, but low-to-no awareness among key employer sectors and healthcare professionals.
  • High willingness for employers to participate, but below average participation rates among the highest-risk industries.
  • High support among employers to provide injured workers “medically-approved” transitional roles, but a misunderstanding of their work force’s willingness to do them.
  • High willingness of workers to transition back to work through a modified or light duty job – versus staying on paid leave on long-term unemployment.

Looking at our polling data, we also found a particularly important data point: A large number (42%) of employers in key sectors were already offering workers transitional jobs following an injury. However, they simply weren’t participating in the program itself.

We called this the “frequent flyer” dilemma. Thousands of employers were racking up miles, but many weren’t using them when needed – or to their maximum effect. This became the central idea for developing a campaign that let these specific employers know the full extent of the Stay At Work program – its benefits, rewards, and ability to help long-term with employee retention, training, wage replacement, and workplace recovery support.

Designing a new advertising campaign

Last month, the new Stay At Work advertising campaign was launched across Washington State. You’ll likely spot the billboards on your drive to work, see the ads if you pick up FORTUNE magazine, or notice the digital banners while surfing the web. (Many of you probably remember seeing the TV spot that aired during the 2014 Apple Cup.)

Because we had very defined target audiences, we knew that L&I needed to reach employers and healthcare professionals right where they were. This led to the creation of a sophisticated direct mail campaign, which we designed to ensure that L&I reached the individuals who matched the 42% target.

Measuring success will be key in determining if the campaign strategy works. The State has set an ambitious goal of increasing total program participation over the next several years by more than 40%. So stay tuned – we’ll be sure to share the results and updates over the coming months.

If you are a Washington State worker or employer interested in the Stay At Work program, we encourage you to visit