Catadjusting and Crisis Intervention
by Steve Ebner (Medulus@aol.com)
As catadjusters we fill a certain niche in the insurance industry in that we are often called to serve those who have experienced some level of crisis. While this is in some measure true of any adjuster, it may be more intense and widespread during a cat event.
We are not counselors, nor should we attempt to be. However, it would be helpful for us to have some understanding of crisis intervention to inform our claim handling. This will only serve to help us settle claims more fairly and finally, and to add another dimension to our ultimate goal of indemnification – returning the insured to a position of wholeness. More often than we realize, the policyholders we encounter expect us to be agents to assist them in recovering from the crisis they have experienced. A savvy adjuster will look beyond the surface and see some of the factors that make settlement of claims more difficult in a crisis situation. Further, they will attempt to address those factors and concerns to the extent it is appropriate for us to do so. I would like to try to address the concepts of crisis intervention in a somewhat simplistic manner, and relate these concepts to catadjusting. In this article I will only be scratching the surface.
Let me explain some of the emotional/psychological scenarios we could face by way of an example from my own life. I was living in Santa Monica, CA, when the Northridge Earthquake struck. Santa Monica, because it is near the ocean and built on sandy soil, experienced liquefaction more than any other city located more than ten miles from the epicenter. At about four o’clock in the morning of Martin Luther King Day 1994, my ten year old daughter shook me awake and said, “Dad! Hurry! Get in the doorway! It’s an earthquake!” I woke to see my two children and the two children who were staying overnight huddling in the doorway. The house continued to shake for another very long minute. The electricity was out. When the shaking stopped I went into my bedroom. My floor to ceiling bookshelves were all tipped over. Every one of my over four hundred books was on the floor in a jumble we had to crawl over. I then tried to put the children back to bed. But every couple minutes the earth shook again – over and over and over. No one was going to get any more sleep that morning in the apartment. About an hour later the panicked mother of the two visiting children arrived to pick them up. She had been unable to open her garage to get her car out. There were no phones or electricity working. Then my children and I went out to the car to sleep because it seemed the safest place to be.
My workplace had all the windows broken out. The building was off limits for some time. There was a curfew in affect the first night. But that was not a problem because most people were in shock, and didn’t want to go out anywhere anyway. By the second night, most of the bars were open and packed to capacity. In the first week many new couples were formed because no one wanted to sleep or live alone anymore. And the ground kept shaking again and again for months afterward. Every time it did, people would exit the buildings they were in. People started talking about moving elsewhere, about how they didn’t like living in Los Angeles anymore. Every time I closed my eyes and started to drift off to sleep, I would get a sensation that the ground was shaking and it would wake me up. Every street became as congested as the freeways had been before the earthquake.
As you can imagine, people living in this type of environment are not going to have the same expectations as people living under normal circumstances. Some may very well make demands beyond the norm of their claim adjuster.
What constitutes a crisis?
I should begin by defining what a crisis is. The term “catastrophe” as defined by the insurance industry is not synonymous with “crisis” as defined in psychological terms. “Crisis” has a personal component. As another adjuster pointed out to me this week, a crisis has more to do with the person experiencing the loss than the size of the loss itself or, for that matter, the number of people affected. We might find that some people react to almost any severe weather event as a crisis. However, certain events – for example a hailstorm – are generally not a crisis. In most cases, no one is injured or killed. For some it may lead to a personal crisis, but this will be the rare individual. The hailstorm, however, could be declared a catastrophe because a cat is declared based on the expected dollar cost to the insurance industry.
Crisis has been defined as “an acute response to an event wherein homeostasis is disrupted, one's usual coping mechanisms have failed, and there is evidence of significant distress or functional impairment” (Critical Incident Stress Management, Everly & Mitchell, 1999) We often find insureds who are in this situation after a hurricane such as Katrina or Ivan. People who, for instance, might normally be rather even-keeled and unflappable may very well be in some level of panic after their roof is blown off or after they have been living in a motel for a month. Instead they are wondering when they can return to their home or their job. The “Big Easy” was not taking life so easy by September and October of 2005.
A Simple Discussion On Working With Someone In Crisis
As catadjusters we are in a position to be of significant assistance to those who are experiencing crisis. Crisis Intervention, as a counseling discipline, focuses on very practical considerations. It focuses on identifying resources for recovery. We are one of those resources. As adjusters we can be of great assistance in helping policyholders recover a sense of normalcy – the ultimate goal of any type of crisis intervention. As I have mentioned in my previous article on CADO, I was an ordained minister for more than a decade. I have sometimes described catadjusting as “ministry with a checkbook.” More than any other type of emotional intervention, crisis intervention focuses on the practical.
By examining the definition of “crisis” above we can extrapolate what must happen in order to bring some sort of wholeness to the lives of those we serve. The first element of the definition is that crisis is an acute response. It is intense but not permanent. Though it may seem to the insureds that their lives have been permanently changed in a dramatic manner, the fact is that the precipitating catastrophe has created a temporary situation. While it would be ill-advised for any of us to flippantly tell someone whose house has been destroyed that this is just a temporary situation, there are nonetheless ways to assure someone that they will recover. Without overstating the case, it is appropriate to explain to the insured that the insurance carrier exists to help the insured return to a normal life after such a crisis. The fostering of hope is very important when things seem hopeless to those in crisis. It can also be appropriate to remind the insured of other resources such as FEMA, The Salvation Army, and The Red Cross. It is inappropriate, however, for us to tell them specifically what these other agencies can do for them. We do not speak on behalf of any of these other agencies. We represent the insurance carrier solely. We must especially never send them to another agency for anything covered by the insurance policy. Our first responsibility is to include all covered or potentially covered loss elements in our claim reports with our best analysis of coverage.
The second element of the definition is that homeostasis is disrupted. Even the most creative or disorganized among us tend to follow certain routines that help us structure our lives. There is some element of similarity in what we do each day. The precipitating crisis event disrupts this. If water supplies have been disrupted, the insureds may not even be able to brush their teeth easily upon waking up. Their routine of watching a television program or reading the paper in the evening may be impossible due to an electrical outage. They may have no workplace, no mail delivery, no open markets, no open restaurants. The corner bar where they meet and talk to their neighbors may be closed. They may be staying in a shelter, sleeping among hundreds of strangers with whom they share facilities. They may temporarily have no privacy. This will be particularly difficult for the introverts among them.
To the best of our ability, we are in the business of helping people restore normalcy to their lives. Those in crisis are looking to us for answers about when and how life will ever be the same again. For some, it never will be the same. There will only be different routines that will create a new normalcy. We can help, once again, by focusing on the practical processes that will help to create some semblance of order in their lives.
The third element of the definition is that, for someone in crisis, normal coping mechanisms have failed. What usually works for people to deal with stress in their environment no longer works. This is particularly true in a major catastrophe. When someone’s workplace is not accessible, the normal cash flow for a family is disrupted. The home that provided shelter and comfort is no longer a place of guaranteed safety. The goal of crisis intervention then, for us as catastrophic claim adjusters, is to help the insured identify means of coping with their new reality. This may be in the form of assisting them to locate and pay for alternative housing, to rebuild what was destroyed, and replace what was lost. It has often been expressed on CADO that our job as adjusters is to find coverage wherever it exists and allow for all that we can under the terms of the policy. Some of the coverage afforded by the insurance policy may not be familiar to the policyholder. It is our job to know what can be afforded to them in order to help them recover. In this way we become part of the solution, and fulfill the contractual promise the insurance carrier makes when the insured buys a policy.
The fourth element of the definition is that the person in crisis is exhibiting severe distress or functional impairment. Though this is the final element of the definition, it is often the first with which we must deal. This means that when we encounter that policyholder who seems stressed out, unfocused, and scattered we may not be dealing with that policyholder operating in their normal mode of behavior. This insured may not simply be a “crazy person”. He or she may be a perfectly sane and rational person who in the midst of a crisis. The very nature of a crisis is that it disrupts someone’s life and emotional state. We have all had the experience where we greet the insured at the front door and suddenly it is as if we have entered a vortex. The insured starts leading us around the house pointing to this and that area of damage faster than any human being could write down the scope of damage, let alone measure it. Or the insured may continue to tell us all the horrible things that occurred on the day of the storm, or insist on talking continually so we cannot even concentrate on our work. Then they call each day with some new damage they located or something else they forgot to tell us. They may exhibit unusual behavior like walking through their house with a flashlight looking for fresh plaster cracks each night. This is not their typical mode of behavior. This is likely to be a result of the very catastrophe we are there to help them work through. This may be because their world no longer feels safe, and they feel powerless to make it safe again.
It is not our job to help them through the emotional component of the crisis, but we need to at least defuse the anxiety long enough to do our job and to obtain the insured’s assistance in scoping the damage. The first tip I have is that it will benefit us greatly to practice some empathic listening. The ceramic outlet covers may seem unimportant to us in the whole scheme of the loss, but if they are important to the insured (because the insured keeps mentioning them) then they should be considered important. We may discover – as one of our colleagues did – that the tattered old phonograph is the only thing the insured cares about because she used to sit and listen to it with her deceased husband. The claim may not be settling because you want to take it as salvage. She may settle the claim if you let her keep it, even though it no longer works. A bit of empathic listening can reveal important details such as that.
When working re-opened claims the number one complaint I hear is, “That first adjuster didn’t even listen to me.” Sometimes I am able to review the estimate with the insured and show them that the concerns they have really are addressed in the estimate. Therefore, the adjuster really did listen. But it did not seem to the insured that the adjuster was listening, and that was what re-opened the claim. The claim adjuster exhibited no empathy. These people were in crisis and it seemed that no one cared.
The second tip I have here is that it is important not to buy into the panic or the manic behavior. Speak in a calm and authoritative voice. Invite the insured to sit down, perhaps, long enough to listen to what is important to them and take control of the situation. We can accomplish little while being led from room to room frantically by the insured. We may want to say something like, “Let me explain how the claim process works.” A colleague explained to me that she spends 10 to 15 minutes with each insured simply listening to them and explaining how the claim process works before moving on to the inspection. She believes these ten to fifteen minutes saves hours later on. I believe she is correct. Apparently, so do the people for whom she works. She and her husband regularly work even in slow times when others are waiting for the phone to ring. Most people have never had a claim before and do not know what to expect. Take a few minutes to explain how you would like to take one room at a time, check that room thoroughly, measure it, and then move on to the next room. Then explain what will happen with their claim after you leave their house. This will often save you a time-consuming game of phone tag later. All this may serve to put the insured at ease and move them gently out of panic mode. Even if you have ten other inspections that day, it will benefit your scheduling to take a couple extra minutes to help the insured focus on the task at hand. It may mean the difference between scoping all the damage on the first trip and having to return to this insured’s home to scope something that was missed the first time. Though you are really not offering any long term emotional help for the insured (because you are not there as a counselor, pastor, or psychiatrist), you are focusing on one of the tasks that will help ultimately resolve the crisis.
This has been a mere skimming of the surface of the issues involved in working with people in crisis. I suspect the most important goal I have tried to achieve is simply fostering awareness that we are not dealing with people in a normal situation or normal frame of mind. Therefore, we may need to be in a state of heightened awareness ourselves, and not simply write people off because of some exhibited bizarre behavior after a major catastrophe. We are generally paid very well to handle a catastrophe, but we are not really hired to benefit ourselves. We are hired as a benefit to the insured. Our problems should be left at the motel so we can focus on the insured’s problems. A brief study of crisis intervention techniques would serve many of us well. This should go without saying as we prepare to go into a hurricane zone, but it may not occur to many of us that the emotional result of a storm may have a significant impact on the interaction between the insureds and ourselves – or, ultimately, of the claim settlement process.
I would like to express my gratitude to those who reviewed this article before publication, and in many cases, contributed something of value which I incorporated into the article. These people are Pastor Lee Carlton, Peter Burch, Mike Kunze, Deb Moroy, Meg Watts, Steve Beaumont, and Janice Toll.