Q&A: New IWH president talks about his role, how he got here, and plans for the years ahead

As he takes over from Dr. Cameron Mustard, who is retiring as Institute for Work & Health president after 20 years, Dr. Peter Smith looks back at his history with the Institute and his vision for its future

Published: January 18, 2022

You could say the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) owes its fortune in having Dr. Peter Smith as its newest president to the Olympics—at least, his aversion to Olympic crowds.

It was late 1999, and Sydney, Australia, was set to host the Summer Olympics the next year. Smith was finishing up a master’s in public health at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and he wanted to get out of the city while the Games were on. He decided on a student exchange to finish his master’s, followed by six months travelling through Europe.

Canada was Smith’s country of choice for the exchange, in part because his academic work involved the social determinants of health and Canada had a health system similar to Australia’s. As for where in Canada, his studies acquainted him with the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, so he decided to do his exchange at the university option closest to Ottawa. That turned out to be the University of Toronto (U of T).

His master’s degree at UNSW required he do a practicum. At U of T, Smith learned of a practicum opportunity at IWH. It piqued his interest. He had previously managed a gym at UNSW, including its fitness programs, and was intrigued by the challenge of promoting health and fitness among UNSW staff.

In the summer of 2000, Smith walked into IWH to begin his 16-week practicum placement as a master’s student. Twenty-two years later, on January 17, 2022, he became the Institute’s president.

Smith’s appointment followed a comprehensive national and international search by the Institute’s Board of Directors. The Board was seeking a leader with outstanding research credentials, a talent for organizational excellence, and a commitment to ensuring the work of the Institute remain aligned to the needs of workers, employers and policy-makers. The Board welcomes Dr. Smith to this new role, says Kate Lamb, chair of the IWH Board. We are looking forward to a bright and innovative future for the Institute under his leadership.

At Work sat down with Smith (via video) in his last days as an Institute senior scientist and scientific co-director. We asked him about the new role, how he got here, and what he plans for the months ahead

Why do you want to be president of IWH?

I have been at IWH since 2000. While I spent a little bit of time back in Australia at Monash University between 2012 and 2015, the rest of my time in research has been at IWH. You don’t stay with an organization for that long without caring about it deeply and being committed to its mission.

As well, IWH is unique in its focus on research excellence, the production of useful and relevant findings, and engagement of stakeholders throughout the scientific process. I’ve always enjoyed all aspects of these pursuits, and being in the role of president allows me to contribute in new and important ways to the continued success of IWH.

What prepares you for the role of IWH president?

I’ve held many different roles at IWH: master’s student, research associate, PhD student, associate scientist, scientist and member of the executive team. So I’m familiar with the processes, challenges and rewards faced by research staff at the Institute—whether they’re early-career researchers or seasoned scientists. I look back on the environment at IWH and how it helped me succeed in my career, and I want to make sure we continue to offer a good work environment to our staff, now and in the future.

And, from the beginning, I have had the benefit of Cam [Mustard]’s mentorship. He was my supervisor in the master’s practicum placement I held when I first came to IWH! He was also a member of my PhD committee. Cam’s guidance has continued into my most recent roles as senior scientist and scientific co-director. I really enjoyed being the scientific co-director. I had a chance to work more directly with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD), the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and our other stakeholders. I also learned more about the work done by the operations, human resources, finance, and KTE-communications teams at IWH.

What is your vision for the Institute?

I want IWH to continue to be a trusted voice on issues related to improving the health, safety and working conditions of workers in Ontario, in Canada and internationally. To maintain that trust, it’s important that we meet the highest standards of research excellence and produce evidence that is useful to policy-makers, workplaces and workers. It’s also important that we produce research that is impartial and that we never push further than the findings allow in the recommendations and guidance we provide.

I also want IWH to continue to play an important role in training the next generation of researchers in work and health. I want IWH to be a sought-after destination for students, trainees and early-career researchers in the area of work and health. And, of course, I want IWH to remain a great place to work. Our staff need to be energized by our mission and engaged in the things we do.

What types of things would you like to do in your first months as president?

I’ll be spending most of my time connecting with IWH staff and with many of our stakeholder groups. Open communication is at the core of my leadership style, so it’s important that I sit down with staff and discuss how we can best communicate with each other going forward.

From a stakeholder perspective, in 2022 we will begin renewing both our strategic plan and research plan, and it’s important that we listen to our stakeholders as we develop these plans. Others at IWH and I will be reaching out about what role stakeholders see IWH playing in Ontario’s prevention community in Ontario, and their priorities and thoughts about the important issues that our research needs to address.

What do you see as IWH’s key role in Ontario’s Prevention System?

IWH is a trusted, independent voice in the Ontario prevention system, and it is important we continue in this role. The new Chief Prevention Officer, Dr. Joel Moody—like his predecessor, Ron Kelusky—believes strongly in evaluation and the use of evidence to ensure and demonstrate that the money spent by the Prevention Office is making work safer for all Ontarians. IWH, along with our partner research organizations, has an important role in providing the best evidence upon which prevention programs and activities can be based, as well as evaluating the short-, medium- and long-term impacts of prevention activities on the health and safety of Ontario workers.

Do you see any changes in IWH’s research direction?

IWH will continue to produce relevant research for policy-makers, workplaces and workers. To do this, we will engage with our various audiences to understand what their priorities are and where they face knowledge gaps that can be addressed through research.

We know that mental health, workplace violence and harassment, and understanding how to make occupational health and safety easier for small businesses are among the priority areas outlined in Ontario’s Prevention Works framework. These will continue to be important parts of our research agenda moving forward.

As I mentioned above, in 2022, we will start the process of renewing our five-year research plan, and this will involve connecting with our stakeholder groups. If through this process we don’t reach you, please feel free to drop me an email!

How do you think COVID is going to affect the work and research of IWH?

IWH will continue to address the impacts of COVID on work as we move forward—and hopefully this year that’s moving out of the pandemic. COVID has highlighted the importance of work as a determinant of health, and I’m going to work hard to maintain the increased focus on healthy work and the collaborations that IWH forged with public health organizations during the pandemic.

It is likely that, in some sectors, work is going to look quite different coming out of the pandemic. We remain interested in how different work environments are associated with health outcomes, so conducting research to understand how work changes as we move out of the pandemic, as well as the positive and negative effects of these changes on the health of workers and workplaces, is important.

As for the effects of COVID on IWH as an organization, while I believe that our best research happens when we are physically together, we have seen that we can still produce high-quality, relevant research when working remotely. As we move out of the pandemic, we will be working on ways to balance the advantages that remote work can give for some staff—especially those with other non-work responsibilities or long commute times—with the advantages that come from being in the same physical space.

How will you measure success as a president?

I’ll be working with our Board of Directors to set up key metrics to measure my success as we move forward. I’m quickly learning there are a lot of moving parts and a variety of things I need to keep my eye on. These include the work environment and ability of our staff to thrive in their work, the involvement of our stakeholders in the research process, the excellence of our research as judged by our peers, and using our funding responsibly and effectively.

Your time at the Institute has also meant a lot in your personal life, hasn’t it?

My time at IWH has opened up many, many opportunities for me. Probably the most important one was the opportunity to meet my wife, who was a PhD student while I was a research associate. I even proposed to her outside our old office just down the road on University Avenue! Luckily for our marriage, we now work for different organizations.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Yes, I’d like to thank the Board of Directors for giving me this opportunity. As an internal candidate, I was really impressed and assured by the time and effort the Board members invested in the recruitment process and making sure they found the right person for this role. The Board hired an external recruitment firm to help with its search, and the interview committee included four Board members and Dr. Terry Sullivan, a former IWH president. We are lucky as an organization to have a Board of Directors that is so invested in our future direction and governance.