Understanding workplace needs shapes IWH’s research agenda

As the demand for innovative, high-quality evidence increases in the work-health field, deciding what research to undertake is important. At the Institute for Work & Health, more than 60 research staff from various disciplines collaborate on occupational health and safety research. Each year the Institute establishes a research agenda that sets its key priorities for the year. So what exactly drives the Institute’s research? It’s a combination of researcher curiosity, meeting our stakeholders’ needs and aligning with our partners, explains IWH Chief Scientist Dr. Tony Culyer.

We use a process of formal and informal consultations with our stakeholders and other interested parties, says Culyer. We work with them to identify their needs in the workplace, and to gain a better understanding of the context in which the research results are likely to be used. Based on these needs, the Institute has internal discussions to ensure its research priorities are consistent with the IWH’s mission and current portfolio of work, adds Culyer. How does the IWH engage its stakeholders when setting its research priorities? We use our extensive knowledge transfer and exchange (KTE) channels to communicate with our stakeholders, explains Culyer. This communication provides input to IWH about the usefulness and accessibility of our research.

One example is our networks of “educationally influential” (EI) clinicians. These networks provide ongoing exchange as we bring new research knowledge to them and they share their experience and ideas with us, says Rhoda Reardon, an IWH Knowledge Transfer Associate. We also ask them about their views on research priorities. For example, occupational therapist EIs recently identified the need for research on mental health, specifically on methods to accommodate workers returning after a mental health-related absence.

In addition to engaging stakeholders, the IWH also receives guidance from its primary funder, the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB). In 2005, the WSIB released a strategic document entitled The Road Ahead, which describes its focus over the next five years. Two of their fundamentals, “health and safety” and “return to work” are strongly aligned with the Institute’s expertise, explains Kelly Grover, Manager of External Relations and Corporate Development. For example, current Institute research focuses on understanding the health risks in young and immigrant workers. Another study involving 600 injured workers will examine the factors that contribute to successful return to work. The Institute also conducts systematic reviews of prevention measures for the WSIB. In this case, there is an extensive ongoing consultation about research priorities, which lead to recommendations for the Institute to consider.

The IWH also aligns with its institutional partners, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Council of Ontario, to ensure the research is relevant to the key priorities of this stakeholder group. For example:

  • Institute researchers are involved with the High Risk Firm Initiative, a Ministry of Labour program that targets firms with the poorest health and safety performances.
  • Associate Scientist Lynda Robson is leading a project that measures and evaluates the performance of injury and prevention strategies in Ontario.
  • Several projects focus on the prevention of work-related musculoskeletal injuries, which are responsible for a majority of lost-time compensation claims.

The Institute’s research priorities will also be examined next year as part of a five-year external review. A review panel will look back at the past five years to assess research productivity, quality and impact. The review will also look ahead to the years 2007-2011.

Source: At Work, Issue 45, Summer 2006: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto