Injured workers often get labelled as “malingerers” and “fraud artists” who are abusing their rights to workers’ compensation benefits by faking the nature and extent of their injuries. This stigmatizing attitude causes them to feel guilty, scared, angry and depressed. Indeed, their mental health can diminish to such as degree that their ability to return to work and function is compromised, keeping them on benefits even longer.
The Institute for Work & Health, through its involvement in the Research Action Alliance for the Consequences of Work Injury (RAACWI), was instrumental in helping Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) recognize and address the issue of stigmatization. The result was the launch of an anti-stigma initiative at the WSIB in 2009 that was designed to change the way it interacts with injured workers.
Stigma identified as priority issue
RAACWI was a unique partnership between injured workers and researchers who came together to explore joint research projects. In 2006, the group received $1 million in funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a five-year period. IWH Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa was RAACWI’s academic lead, and Steve Mantis of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups was its community lead.
In the early days of RAACWI, the issue of stigmatization was identified in the work of a number of its researchers, including IWH Adjunct Scientists Joan Eakin and Bonnie Kirsh, and IWH Scientists Ellen MacEachen and Agnieszka Kosny. So RAACWI brought this issue to the WSIB table as part of an agreement between the two to share research findings.
Through a number of “blue-sky discussions,” 10 WSIB and six RAACWI participants identified stigmatizing attitudes and processes at the WSIB and brainstormed ways to address them.
WSIB makes substantive changes
Jill Hutcheon, then WSIB’s CEO, officially launched the anti-stigma initiative at a RAACWI symposium in May 2009, where she promised to lead the way in combating stigma. Based on RAACWI research, we are introducing a new initiative this year to reduce stigmatizing attitudes and behaviours among WSIB front-line workers and WSIB communications, she said. I know changing attitudes and behaviours isn’t easy, but I believe that, in partnership with RAACWI, we can make change.
By May 2010, the anti-stigma team had introduced some very concrete changes at the WSIB. They included the use of:
- supportive language in WSIB communication about injured workers. For example, the WSIB’s focus on prevention in its Road to Zero campaign left injured workers feeling left in the cold. So the WSIB made its role in injury support and work reintegration more prominent in its messages.
- a draft recruitment screen to identify damaging attitudes toward injured workers. This screen helps identify negative attitudes toward workers with disabilities when recruiting internally and externally.
- a tool to assist in destigmatizing WSIB forms and other documents. This was implemented within the WSIB’s Prevention and Strategic Policy and Communications Branches.
- a brochure on the stigma faced by injured workers. This brochure is offered through the WSIB website and WSIB information centres across the province.
- a talk/slide deck to spread awareness. The anti-stigma message was delivered throughout the WSIB—to its executive committee, to all vice-presidents and their management teams, to staff in the Regulatory and Development Branch, to all service and operations managers, to local union representatives and to the Board’s Labour Market Re-entry partners.
- an e-learning course on stigma. A generic e-learning course on stigma awareness was expected to be rolled out in October 2010 and embedded into the competency training that all WSIB staff are expected to complete as part of their performance development and evaluation. The generic course was also to be customized for in-class training of new-hires, managers and the WSIB’s training specialists.
Anti-stigma message continues to spread
As a result of RAACWI’s work, the anti-stigma message continued to spread. Outgoing president Jill Hutcheon mentioned RAACWI and the anti-stigma initiative in her opening remarks in the WSIB’s 2008 annual report. Incoming WSIB President David Marshall and Deputy Minister of Labour Cynthia Morton both mentioned stigma when they appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts in February 2010.
We have new relationships between us as individuals and organizations, and this opens up opportunities for hope, says Mantis, RAACWI's community lead. Forums that allow us to work together, to understand the issues with the help of research, and to try to find solutions the best we can—they are our best hope to make the system work.