The making of an “influential knowledge user”: How Judy Geary used research to improve outcomes at WSIB

After more than three decades in various leadership roles at the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Judy Geary, recently retired, shares how she came to value the contribution of research to policy and program development.

Last summer, Judy Geary retired from her position as vice-president of Work Reintegration at the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). During her 33 years at WSIB, Geary came to recognize and value the role of research in program development, including the research of the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

Indeed, because of her belief in the value of research, Geary is what the IWH refers to as an “influential knowledge user.” To find out more about the making of an “influential knowledge user,” Ron Saunders, IWH’s director of Knowledge Transfer and Exchange, interviewed Judy Geary in October 2012. Excerpts from that interview are included here.

Saunders: How did you come to value using research in your work?

Geary: It was an evolutionary process. I can’t say that when I began my career in workers’ compensation I had a particular interest in research. I became aware that evidence-based policy-making or program design would stand a better chance of succeeding.  

And when Jill Hutcheon was appointed our CEO, she strongly encouraged the use of evidence-based practice design and decision-making. We were also hearing a lot about evidence-based health care, so the concept of using evidence to design things was gaining traction everywhere. 

Apart from that, I found once I started to reach into the research community, researchers were open to conversations where we could discuss problems, share research findings and create ideas about new research.

And nothing works like success. As I started to incorporate research into my work—and it was successful—it created a lot of momentum to rely on research to inform the work I was doing.

Saunders: In your career, you’ve been involved in some major design changes at WSIB. How have you used research to inform this work?

Geary: I’ll use the two most recent and significant changes at WSIB that involved research to help design. The first was a new case management approach, which we began to implement in late 2008. We revamped roles, practices and guidelines for staff.

I began by having my team conduct a synthesis of the literature, and our focus was on return to work. The idea was to infuse return to work throughout everything we were doing in service delivery. Then I arranged meetings with researchers and the design team, so that they could interact on specific topics that were important to our success.

Those meetings were critical, because people can be quite intimidated by interacting with PhDs. Humanizing the research community to the team enabled dialogue, and allowed people on the design team to just pick up the phone and ask questions as they were going along. Also, as the team drafted guidelines and protocols, we brought some of those documents to a working group of researchers and got their feedback about whether or not we were on the right track.

We tried to build research findings about factors affecting return to work into our new processes, functions and roles. For example, there was research in Australia and subsequently in Ontario showing that delays in the first decision about entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits had a negative effect on return to work. So we re-engineered the initial decision-making process to facilitate quick decisions without losing quality.

[For more information on the role of IWH research in the development of the WSIB’s case management approach, see the Fall 2009 issue of At Work: /at-work/58/the-wide-reach-of-iwh-research.]

A second example of using research in designing and implementing change was the work I led on a new work integration model and program. We used many of the same types of interactions with research and researchers. For this work and for some tweaks to the case management approach and the service delivery model, we also relied on some specific pieces of research that we had requested or commissioned.

The workplace-based return to work literature review from IWH that was led by Renée-Louise Franche, which resulted in the Seven Principles for Return to Work was very instrumental.

The study of long-duration claims [led by Sheilah Hogg-Johnson]—a very significant collaboration between WSIB and IWH—was influential in developing work reintegration policy, as well as in understanding the impact of the employer self-reliance model and the effects of the secondary injury enhancement fund. We used that research to help us to figure out the key drivers of poor return-to-work performance, and we have systematically attempted to go about addressing them. 

Ellen McEachen’s work on labour market re-entry was very influential, in terms of the decisions that were made about abandoning the labour market re-entry program and in sourcing the replacement program. 

So where research provided compelling evidence of a key performance driver, a flaw or a best practice, we attempted to use it in some way. And, it just made sense to us to do that because …. why wouldn’t you? Whether it was research done on our own environment, broader research about return-to-work practice or international system reviews, it just made sense to use well-designed, credible evidence and try to incorporate it in some way to improve the performance of the WSIB.

[For more information on the role of IWH research in the development of the WSIB’s new service delivery model, see the Winter 2012 issue of At Work: http://www.iwh.on.ca/at-work/67/iwh-research-helps-shape-new-work-integration-initiative.]  

Saunders: To what extent have you, or people working with you, participated on advisory groups to research projects?

Geary: I’ve been on three or four of them, and other people at WSIB have also participated. I’ve found it useful, and I think others have as well because, first of all, we get to shape the research a little bit. And it’s nice to be helpful to the research community to help them to link in with data or stakeholders. But most importantly, as the advisory groups are briefed on the early findings, it’s a way for research users to be able to access the findings, to some degree, before they’re actually published.

For example, in Ellen’s study on labour market re-entry, I spent a couple of hours with her one afternoon, and she talked about what she was finding. It just blew the lid off of labour market re-entry for me, because she was studying it in a way that WSIB could never have done. We wouldn’t have been able to get the kind of honesty from the people involved in the process that she and her team were getting.  And when she was describing to me and my little team what she was seeing, it was incredibly influential.

Saunders: Have you been able to access research in a way that’s user friendly?   

Geary: So what I’ve appreciated as a user are things like being on the advisory committees, getting advance copies of reports. The offers of briefings are always welcome. Sometimes I’ve arranged for the researchers to come in and do what we call “expert forums” at WSIB. The IWH publications I find very user friendly, like At Work and Issue Briefing

Saunders: Are there things we could do to make the relationship between the research community and the policy community even stronger?

Geary: Strengthening relationships is kind of a two-way street.  And so, in thinking back on my own relationship with the research community, and particularly with the Institute for Work & Health, I had to reach out, and then the IWH had to be there—responsive—so that I felt comfortable doing it again.

I think the most important thing that the research and the Institute can do to strengthen relationships is to ensure that your research is relevant—that it’s answering questions or addressing problems that policy-makers and research-users are experiencing now and anticipating policy issues that will emerge in a few years. I also see creating as many opportunities as possible for dialogue as critical. 

Source: At Work, Issue 71, Winter 2013: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto