According to 2012 figures, about one in 10 Canadians of working age live with some form of disability—whether physical or mental, chronic or acute, episodic or temporary, work-related or otherwise.
Many of these individuals face barriers getting into or staying in the labour market due to their health condition or impairment. According to Statistics Canada, less than half of Canadians with disabilities are employed—much lower than the employment rate of those without a disability (74 per cent).
“Effective and cost-effective strategies are out there to reduce work disability, including policies to accommodate people with disabilities in the workplace and returning them to work,” says Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Senior Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa, co-director of the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy (CRWDP). “But many employers struggle to learn about them and integrate them into their operations.”
That’s why the CRWDP, a pan-Canadian, multidisciplinary research centre established in 2014 and headquartered at IWH, is working with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) to develop a new system standard for systematically managing work disability prevention.
It aims to take current research evidence, successful practices in the field, and the viewpoints of stakeholders—employers, workers and worker representatives, clinicians, workers’ compensation agencies, insurance companies, policy-makers and researchers—to inform a management system for use at the organizational level. It will include a framework for hiring and retaining people with disabilities. An implementation guide will also be developed to support the introduction of the standard in organizations of different sectors and sizes.
Called the National Standard for Work Disability Prevention Management Systems, this standard will be designed to integrate with other CSA management systems and ISO standards. It will also dovetail with existing codes of professional practice, such as the one developed for disability managers by the National Institute of Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR), says Tompa.
“Management systems are based on current knowledge and best practices and are designed on the plan-do-check-act principle to ensure smooth functioning and continuous improvement,” says Tompa. “All domains of management need to be part of the management system. That’s why a standard is needed in this area—to ensure a clear, consistent and integrated approach to work disability prevention in workplaces across Canada.”
The development of this CSA standard is just one of the many projects underway within CRWDP. Below is a sample of other projects funded or led by the CRWDP:
A database of the research literature
A starting point for any researcher on work disability policies is a review of the scientific literature. A systematic literature search led by Dr. Ellen MacEachen, CRWDP co-director, associate professor at University of Waterloo and adjunct scientist at IWH, has found 724 articles in peer-reviewed publications on work disability programs and policies. The results of this scoping review are now organized in a database accessible via the CRWDP website.
The articles in the database, published in or after 2000, all address government policy or legislation on work reintegration or income support after an injury or illness. Papers about internal workplace policies or private insurance programs are not included. “A goal of this project is to create a searchable international database relevant to both researchers and partners of CRWDP,” says MacEachen. “Many of our partners do not have access to research libraries. Research around the world has produced some real learning on this topic, and we hope that this database will help make that research accessible to important stakeholders.”
MacEachen adds that syntheses of this literature are in the works, including one that compares countries with comprehensive work disability systems to countries with separate workers’ compensation systems. Another synthesis looks at how return-to-work practices are assessed and measured in the current literature—which is “not very well,” she adds.
An evidence synthesis of workplace accommodation
To identify good practices in accommodating workers with disabilities, a research team led by Tompa conducted an evidence synthesis of accommodation policies, programs and practices—from assistive devices and flexible schedules to job restructuring and inclusive hiring practices. The report contains a table listing a broad range of accommodation options, along with examples of the relevant disabilities, industries and job categories. Where available, the table also lists best practices for implementation and evidence of effectiveness.
“A theme coming up often is that one type of accommodation does not meet the needs of all people, even if they have the same disability and are in the same job,” says Tompa. “The accommodation process must be person-centred. In fact, many of the studies suggest that the most effective way to identify and meet accommodation needs is to have the person with the disability play an active role in the identification of appropriate accommodations.”
An article synthesizing the peer-reviewed literature from this study, led by Kathy Padkapayeva, a research associate at IWH, is forthcoming in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation.
A legal review of the “welfarization” of disability
Canada’s disability system is made up of many provincial and federal programs. However, one part of it—provincial social assistance programs—has been growing disproportionately relative to the others. In a review of policy changes since 1990, report author Andrew King argues that the focus on containing costs across different programs has resulted in a shift of burden toward the welfare system and away from work-based support programs: direct link?
In Canada, as in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, “there has been a major effort to transform public policy towards people with a disability away from income security, which is seen as a benefit trap, and into one that provides time-limited rehabilitation and income support. This includes transforming the rules of benefit entitlement and reducing the amounts received by unemployed people with a disability,” he writes.
To find out more about the CSA initiative, the work disability research database, the evidence synthesis, King’s legal review, as well as other studies and reports supported by CRWDP, please go to: crwpd.ca/en/new-studies.