Training program attracts work and health researchers

Each year in Canada, the costs of disability arising from work-related causes – including workers’ compensation and health-care costs – exceed $6.7 billion. Despite the significant financial and social impacts of worker injury and illness, only a small fraction of Canadian researchers are dedicated to examining work disability prevention issues.

An innovative program that attracts international students, the Work Disability Prevention Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Strategic Training Program, aims to build research capacity in young researchers and to create a strong network that examines these complex issues.

The Institute for Work & Health (IWH) is one of five research training centres affiliated with the program and several IWH researchers serve as mentors.

Based at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, the program is led by Dr. Patrick Loisel, an orthopedic surgeon and expert in work disability prevention. The program brings students and mentors together to create awareness, share ideas and discuss practices related to preventing disability in workers. Since the program’s launch in 2003, 44 students have enrolled and 12 have graduated from the three-year program.

Janne Skakon is a student with the program. An occupational psychologist and a researcher at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark, Skakon says she values the program’s  transdisciplinary approach.

As a researcher anchored in my own discipline, my original understanding – including theories and methods – are being challenged in a constructive way, says Skakon. The impact of the economical, political and legal issues was new and interesting, which enhanced my initial understanding of the field.

In fact, the transdisciplinary nature of the program, with mentors and students from such varied disciplines as ergonomics, health policy, medicine, biostatistics and ethics, often changes the way students view work disability prevention.

Students who have graduated from the program report that they have changed their practice and broadened their views of work disability prevention issues, says IWH Scientist Dr. Ellen MacEachen, a mentor with the program. MacEachen dedicates one week each year at the University of Sherbrooke, mentoring first-year students and co-teaching a methods course with IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Sheilah Hogg-Johnson.

MacEachen, who is a qualitative researcher, says sharing experiences and learning from others make this program unique. She says the instructors teach, “how to think rather than what to do.”

Led by more than 25 mentors, the part-time program is available to doctoral and post-doctoral students. It comprises four educational components: e-learning, a summer session, a synthesis course and optional courses or topics such as knowledge transfer. As part of the program, students can complete a training practicum at a designated research centre, such as the Institute for Work & Health.

Skakon, who’s completing her PhD studies at the University of Copenhagen, spent six weeks at IWH last year. She worked with MacEachen analyzing  qualitative data from interviews with leaders and employees in a large pharmaceutical company. The interviews are part of her PhD project on how leaders’ stress affects employees’ stress and well-being. I found the work environment, the multi-faceted and open dialogue at IWH highly inspiring, she says.

The program receives funding from the CIHR. Students who are accepted into the program automatically receive a scholarship to cover most of the program costs including university fees, transportation, lodging and meals.

Institute Involvement

The Institute for Work & Health takes pride in training and providing mentorship to the next generation of work and heatlh researchers. The IWH has been involved with the work disability prevention program since its inception in 2003. It is one of five international research centres students may visit to complete their practicum. Several IWH researchers serve as mentors, including:

  • Dr. Claire Bombardier
  • Dr. Curtis Breslin
  • Dr. Donald Cole
  • Dr. Pierre Côté
  • Dr. Renée-Louise Franche
  • Dr. Sheilah Hogg-Johnson
  • Dr. Ellen MacEachen
  • Dr. Emile Tompa

Source: At Work, Issue 49, Summer 2007: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto