What research can do: COVID-related research from IWH: findings to watch for

IWH pandemic-related research includes collaborations with external organizations and modifications of ongoing studies. Here's a look at the findings to come

Published: June 2, 2021

A year ago, we published the 100th issue of At Work. It was also the first issue we published during a pandemic. Although many of us remain in lockdown, as we were a year ago, things feel different this spring. There’s a real sense we are climbing out and emerging into a new normal—especially as vaccination rates pick up steam across the country. It’s with this sense of hope that we look back at our research strategy during the pandemic and consider what it will look like going forward.

Our pandemic-related research took one of two routes over the past year. We conducted new research, often in collaboration with other organizations, about the impact of COVID-19 on work and health. We also modified some of our studies already in the field to capture new information about the effects of the pandemic.

In terms of new research, our collaboration with the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) highlighted the importance of COVID-19 protections on the mental health of workers. Findings related to health-care workers and workers outside the health-care sector have already been shared (see At Work, Fall 2020). Findings specific to the education sector are coming soon.

So, too, are findings from a study conducted with researchers from Public Health Ontario (PHO) on the prevalence of COVID-19 infection control practices in Canadian workplaces and another on the rates of workplace outbreaks across industries in Ontario. Both of these studies grew out of IWH’s involvement with PHO in the development of the Occupational Exposure to COVID-19 Risk Tool.

Early this fall, at the XXII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, you’ll be hearing about IWH research (conducted with partners in the United States and Europe) comparing the responses of occupational health and safety (OHS) inspectorates in various jurisdictions around the world to COVID-19 in the workplace. You’ll also hear about the challenges of tracking the incidence of COVID-19 due to workplace exposures and what information we should be prepared to collect in the event of a future pandemic if we want to truly understand the role of workplaces in infectious disease transmission.

With respect to incorporating COVID-related questions into ongoing research, you’ll find an example in this issue. A study looking at the transition to work of young adults with rheumatic illness resurveyed participants after March 2020 to learn about the effect of the pandemic on their employment (see sidebar on page 5).

Findings from other studies that adapted to the pandemic reality are also coming shortly. In our next issue, you’ll read what we learned from an IWH study that incorporated new questions about COVID-related health, financial and organizational-support concerns among workers with and without disabilities. Later this summer, you’ll get our findings on the influence of COVID-19 on workers’ use of cannabis and alcohol, including use at work.

During the pandemic, we didn’t lose sight of the many health, safety and disability issues that were important before COVID, which we managed to continue studying throughout the past year. Going forward, we will continue to seek funding to research a wide range of issues. Depending on the funding envelope, some will have a COVID focus; many others will not. Even if not, we will heed the recent advice of our Scientific Advisory Committee: to consider or examine the impacts of the pandemic as a modifier when studying labour force trends, work precarity, the changing nature of work, and worker mental and physical health.

COVID-19 is an important event within the context of other trajectories that were already affecting the interface between work and health. Our role over the next five years, using sound research methods and the peer-review process, will be to understand the extent and nature of that impact, and to communicate the implications—from remedying the work-related inequities that COVID-19 laid bare to enhancing work and workplaces to ensure worker safety and well-being now and in the future.