The Research Action Alliance on the Consequences of Work Injury (RAACWI) is working with the WSIB to help eliminate the stigma affecting injured workers, particularly in their dealings with the WSIB.
RAACWI, which is made up of both academics and injured worker representatives in Ontario, has been doing research in the last three years on various aspects of the aftermath of a workplace injury. The alliance’s findings on the stigma surrounding injured workers has contributed to a “project charter” that “seeks to identify and eliminate stigma throughout the WSIB system,” says Steve Mantis, the project’s community lead.
“This is research in action.”
In a statement to COS, the WSIB stated it is partnering with the alliance “to identify key areas for improvement – eliminating stigmatizing language, behaviours and attitudes from WSIB communications, frontline staff training and service delivery.”
“Using research, sharing personal stories and applying a ‘stigma lens’ to existing forms, publications, messaging and practices, the WSIB will help create a more positive and respectful environment for workers within the workplace safety and insurance system.”
Mantis says he noticed this stigma around injured workers when he spent time at the WSIB’s Downsview Rehabilitation Centre in Toronto, after he lost his left arm in an industrial accident in 1978.
Mantis says he met other injured workers there and observed that “many of the people weren’t treated very well.”
“There was a lot of suspicion that people were cheating” or taking advantage of the system and “a feeling that you were always being watched,” he says.
“It’s hard enough to adjust to living with a disability, but to have your moral integrity challenged on a regular basis really leads in many cases to mental health issues, depression, family breakup and even suicide.”
While the system helps people in most cases, since the majority involve short-term injuries, those who have lifelong disabilities “end up suffering most greatly,” Mantis says.
The alliance’s project began in March 2006 after receiving funding from the Community-University Research Alliance, which is a federal government program, Mantis says.
It now has more than 25 research projects, which are focused on the themes of legislation, health and wellbeing, financial security and labour market experiences, and political activism and history, says Dr. Emile Tompa, academic lead at RAACWI.
The alliance does “a lot of capacity building” on both the academic side of the project and the community side, he says.
On the academic side, it’s trying “to get new researchers involved in this area” and is supporting post-doctoral, MA and PhD students, Tompa says.
“It’s an area that requires some new blood because it’s not an area that you … normally would get exposed to in the traditional academic curriculum in most disciplines.”
On the community side, the alliance is advancing the skills of the injured workers “in understanding and participating in research, as well as their involvement in the policy development process,” Tompa says.
The alliance’s Injured Workers’ Speakers’ School, which is a 14-week program offered in Toronto and Thunder Bay, provides training in public speaking, communications and leadership, and has a history component about the compensation system, Mantis says.
Tompa has also done quantitative research on “the incremental probability of marital breakup of individuals who have sustained a permanent impairment from a work injury compared to the general population.”
He found that “after even controlling for changes in income and all the financial aspects of work injuries … there was still an incremental probability of about 25 per cent of marital breakup.”
“We attributed that to stress and strain associated with being an injured worker with a permanent impairment.”
Tompa says he finds conducting the research in partnership with injured workers is helpful because it helps ensure that he’s asking the right questions and focusing on the right issues.
While this approach means the process is slower because the different communities involved have “to build up trust and understanding and consensus,” he says it is more satisfying than traditional academic research.
Mantis hopes the research projects will continue to bring changes.
“We would like to really build into the whole compensation system a component of evaluation and accountability that looks at the lifelong outcome, the lifelong journey and recognizes the long-term impacts of permanent disabilities, and continually tries to address those issues to minimize the negative impacts,” he says.
For more information about RAACWI’s work go to www.consequencesofworkinjury.ca