McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

McMaster professors probe links of gender, work and health

Published: April 22, 2013

Gender differences between men and women are going under the microscope at McMaster University. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research has awarded Chairs to two McMaster researchers who will explore gender issues from very different perspectives.

How workplaces can better accommodate employees with caregiver responsibilities at home will be investigated by Allison Williams, associate professor, School of Geography and Earth Sciences, who has been awarded the Chair in Gender, Work and Health — Implementation Systems.

How men's and women's roles at work, home and within society are reflected in the musculoskeletal problems they have will be researched by Joy MacDermid, assistant dean and professor of the School of Rehabilitation Science, who is the recipient of the Chair in Gender, Work and Health — Muscle and Tone.

Of the nine chairs in gender research awarded across Canada, McMaster is the only university to receive two chairs. Each chair is awarded $800,000 over five years.

Allison Williams research

Allison Williams
Allison Williams, associate professor, School of Geography and Earth Sciences

Williams said the writing is on the wall with respect to the impact of a restructured health care system on the transfer of responsibilities onto family members.  She said employers generally fail to recognize the importance of this issue and they would be wise to accommodate caregivers' needs by offering flex-time, workplace/home options and extended leave opportunities.

In her research, she will be doing an international analysis of best practices for caregiver-employee policies, carrying out an evaluation of a caregiver-employee friendly workplace intervention program, undertaking a broad assessment of vulnerable caregivers, all to contribute to the development of a computer-based decision-making tool to help employers and caregiver-employees determine appropriate caregiver-friendly workplace options.

Her research will also involve finding a way to spread the news about the Compassionate Care Benefits introduced in 2004 by the federal government but hardly used because of the limited knowledge of its existence by health care professionals, employers or human resource professionals, she said. This benefit provides up to eight weeks leave for full-time employee caring for a seriously ill or dying family member.

Joy MacDermid Research

Joy MacDermid
Joy MacDermid, assistant dean and professor of the School of Rehabilitation Science

Musculoskeletal (MSK) injuries which affect the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons contribute the second largest economic burden in Canada. In 2000, 11 million Canadians suffered MSK injuries that resulted in $18 million in indirect costs that often relate to being off work. Osteoporosis added another $2 million a year.

MacDermid will investigate how musculoskeletal problems can be measured for their impact on function and work disability, and how to reduce this burden.

"There are tremendous differences in injury rates between men and women because of their very different roles," she said. "Women tend to have more neck problems; men, more lower back and rotator cuff problems. But, we don't always know if this happens for biological or gender-based reasons."

MacDermid said biology is just one component of how disorders develop when men and women perform different tasks at work and at home. For example, women undertake more house and caregiver work in the home, which can contribute to more physical and mental strain that contributes to neck and back problems. Wrist fractures are more common in women and this seems to relate to a constellation of factors that affect bone, muscles, balance and activity differently when men and women age.

MacDermid will investigate whether or not there is any gender bias in the way pain and disability is measured in men and women. She will also research differences in the patterns of men's and women's work injuries, differences in their return-to-work  patterns, raise awareness of how gender affects work roles and incorporate any findings into rehabilitation programs.

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