Research priorities

Research at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) focuses on six priority areas that fall within two broad themes: work as a determinant of health and health as a determinant of work.

The first theme, “Work as a determinant of health,” recognizes work as a key contributor to physical and psychological health, both positively and negatively. The second theme, “Health as a determinant of work,” recognizes the impact that injuries and health conditions can have on individuals’ ability to fully participate in the labour market, to return to work after an absence or to stay at work while experiencing health difficulties. Across both themes, our research supports policy-makers, employers and workers in creating healthy, safe and inclusive work environments.

The six research priorities, developed in consultation with our stakeholders, form a balanced research agenda that aligns with stakeholder priorities, advances the Institute’s mission and reflects its areas of expertise.


worker using augmented reality in a production factory

Changing nature of work and the future of work

Diverse forces are changing the nature of work, with the potential to both positively and negatively affect workers. For example, due to advances in digital technology, the shift to remote and hybrid jobs and the continued rise of gig and platform-based employment, changes are unfolding in what people do for work, and where and how they do it. Our research seeks to understand the impact of these changes on workers, and the workplace and system-level policies and practices to ensure the health, safety and inclusion of all workers, now and in the future.

two workers looking over a plan

Longstanding work and health issues

Many longstanding issues related to work injuries and their consequences continue to negatively affect the lives and health of workers. For example, musculoskeletal injuries remain the leading cause of disability and discomfort among Canadian workers. Rates of workers’ compensation claims for traumatic fatalities have remained constant for the past decade. Persons with disabilities continue to be employed at lower rates, or in poorer work conditions, than those who do not live with a disability. Our research aims to provide new knowledge to help regulators and workplaces address persistent occupational health and safety (OHS) risks, workers’ compensation challenges and barriers to labour market inclusion.

Monochrome splatter painting of a woman in distress

Mental health and work

Awareness is growing about the importance of how the work environment, in particular the psychosocial environment, can impact the mental health of workers. Awareness is also growing about the differing work accommodation and return-to-work needs of workers with mental—versus physical—health conditions. Our research aims to identify and measure psychosocial hazards and explore how dimensions of the psychosocial work environment can promote positive mental health or lead to poorer mental health. Our research also explores workplace and system-level strategies for helping workers with mental health conditions—including post-traumatic stress disorders—stay in and return to work.

Small business shipping area with deliveries coming and going

Organizational contexts, including small business

Organizational contexts—for example, workplace size, sector and jurisdiction—can shape employer responses to occupational health and safety (OHS). They can also affect organizations’ ability to support employees living with disabling health conditions to stay at work or return to work after an absence. Our research seeks to better understand how these contexts may influence the effectiveness of programs and policies to prevent work injuries and improve OHS and return-to-work outcomes, with a special emphasis on the needs of small business.

Long exposure photo with people in motion crossing busy city intersection

Work and health within a broader societal context

Work has a role to play in producing and maintaining inequalities in population health. But broader conditions outside work—such as economic conditions, housing affordability and access to childcare—can impact employment quality and worker health and safety. Similarly, social and income support systems can shape the experiences of workers facing a job interruption, and accessibility legislation can impact employment opportunities for persons living with disabilities. Our research explores how workers and workplaces are affected by changes to labour, social and health laws and policies, as well as by macro economic and societal conditions.

Three workers in a modern office, one using a wheelchair.

Worker diversity and inclusion

The labour market in Ontario and across Canada is becoming more diverse. Greater attention to the labour market experiences of newcomers and recent immigrants to Canada is needed, as is greater attention to the ways race, age, gender and health status affect occupational health and safety (OHS) and disability management outcomes. Our research examines how our increasingly diverse workforce—racially, culturally and linguistically—affects OHS awareness, training and health outcomes. It also seeks to better understand the varied health and work experiences of workers with diverse health conditions and identities, and how workplaces can best support these workers.