Homecare researcher given inaugural IWH early career award

The Institute’s new research accelerator award to support study on personal support workers

Published: December 13, 2023

Working as personal support workers (PSWs) can be challenging, especially so for those who provide services in homecare settings. Individuals in this occupation work alone, interacting with clients with varying levels of care needs, managing tasks in workspaces that are outside their control.

The demand for better research evidence on the interaction between work and health in this occupation is high. Yet, due to the dispersed nature of the workforce, studies about this worker group are difficult to carry out. The research literature on this worker group is therefore sparse.

Now, an early career researcher at a large employer of PSWs is hoping to fill in that evidence gap—with financial support from a new award program at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). Dr. Katherine Zagrodney, senior research associate and quantitative research lead within the research and innovation department at Toronto-headquartered VHA Home Healthcare, is setting out to study how work experiences affect the health of homecare PSWs.

Katherine Zagrodney Headshot
Dr. Katherine Zagrodney, recipient of the Cameron Mustard Early Career Accelerator Award

The overarching objective of this research is to describe and analyze health outcome differences in PSWs across a multitude of sociodemographic characteristics, such as age and income, as well as work-related factors, such as travel time and workload, says Zagrodney, whose work will be supported in part by IWH’s Cameron Mustard Early Career Accelerator Award.

This research will allow us to have direct answers to questions such as, what’s the relative impact on a PSW’s health of having to travel farther between clients to deliver care or of having more complex clients? The results of this study will provide policy-makers with new data to drive decisions to improve the work and health of PSWs.

Zagrodney’s study is designed to draw on anonymized employee data from VHA linked with health use data housed at ICES (formerly the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences). The employee data from VHA, a not-for-profit charitable provider of homecare that employs about 1,200 PSWs in Ontario at any given time, will allow Zagrodney to examine week-by-week changes in working conditions. With linkage to health use data by her collaborators at ICES, the study will provide insights into health outcomes such as drug prescriptions, medical diagnoses and other points of access with the health-care system. The research will begin following approval by the University of Toronto’s research ethics board.

The ability to examine weekly data over time is particularly exciting to Zagrodney, she says. We know that negative health events don’t always occur suddenly or in a silo, but often follow prolonged and repeated exposure. There are many factors in a person’s life that can lead to a health event. The longitudinal aspect of the study design lets us better reflect that reality and to capture more accurately what’s going on in a PSW’s work life and how that can contribute to various health outcomes, she explains.

Zagrodney is the inaugural recipient of the Cameron Mustard Early Career Accelerator Award, named after the former president of the Institute who stepped down in January 2022. During his 20 years at the helm of the Institute, Mustard was a constant advocate for the Institute playing an important role in mentoring future work and health researchers. I am very much looking forward to the results of Dr. Zagrodney’s innovative research into the working conditions and health status of the many thousands of home health-care workers in Ontario, says Mustard. Dr. Zagrodney is the ideal recipient of this award, and I wish her success as she moves forward with this study.

The award supports any activity that helps promote, develop and/or accelerate the recipient’s research career. These activities could include data collection costs, data access fees for secondary data analyses, conference travel, or open access publications. Zagrodney describes the award as incredibly meaningful in supporting her goal of becoming a leader in the study of health and work, especially for healthcare occupations. More than that, it will allow me to demonstrate how existing data can be leveraged to answer critically important policy-relevant health workforce research questions.

To learn more about the award, go to: www.iwh.on.ca/opportunities/cameron-mustard-award.