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Helping Marginalized Workers Get a Foot in the Door

Cracking the Case on Workforce Entry – Helping Marginalized Workers Get a Foot in the Door

By Rosemary Lysaght, PhD & Agnieszka Fecica, PhD

There is much talk in the media these days about the employment challenges faced by millennials. Born between 1982 and 1997 (currently 23 – 38 years of age), millennials often struggle to start careers due to the compounding impact of the negative job market effects of globalization and technological change paired with the lower competitiveness of young workers with limited job experience. As a result, many millennials face high levels of precarious employment, a term that refers to work that is casual, seasonal or temporary, usually part-time, and lacking features of standard employment relationships, including benefits and job security (1). Precarious employment has been estimated by StatsCan to affect anywhere from 27 – 45% of Canadians (2). A recent Canadian study of employment in millennials revealed that only about 44% of respondents had obtained permanent, full time jobs, while the rest worked precariously in a variety of unstable circumstances (1). Worse still, precarious employment has been associated with poorer mental health and well-being, which is destined to decline further given lack of access to extended health care benefits for many in this group (3).

A growing body of research focusing on the heath promoting value of stable employment highlights what is at stake for today’s youth (3). Not only do higher incomes open doors to better diets, housing and medical care – employment connects people to people, and ensures regular exercise if only by virtue of getting out of the house every day. A 2018 literature review on the connection between employment and health concluded that while the impact of employment on health is complex and difficult to unpack, unemployment produces poor health outcomes, especially as it relates to mental health (4). The current levels of high youth unemployment and precarious employment pose a major public health concern.

Consider, now, facing these work-entry challenges while also living with a disability. People with disabilities have historically faced substantial employment challenges, particularly those with significant impairment levels (5) (6). In response to the low employment rates typically faced by these individuals, organizations like the United Nations (7) and the International Labour Organization (8) have produced documents asserting the right of people with disabilities to fair and equitable employment. Given the current state of employment among millennials, a target of equitable employment may not represent a very optimistic future.

How, then, do we get people with employment barriers related to disability into an already challenging labour market? One approach is to stop trying to crack open a seemingly impenetrable door, and instead proactively create workplaces that embrace the qualities known to promote health and worker success. Social enterprises that are designed for the purpose of job creation for marginalized groups have been in existence internationally for over 50 years. Originating in Europe and Asia in various forms, social enterprises are businesses that operate in the open marketplace with a social purpose, which in the case of work integration social enterprises (WISE) is to create employment opportunities, along with other spin off benefits. Social enterprises have successfully launched careers and helped people overcome poverty and social vulnerabilities throughout the world. Take, for example, Bangladesh, where Nobel Laureate in Economics Muhammad Yunus demonstrated how creating a self-sustaining yogurt business could create good jobs for rural and urban women, while addressing malnutrition in children (9). Likewise, in the 1970s groups of persons with mental health challenges in northern Italy created worker cooperatives to overcome joblessness. The cooperatives ran businesses such as hotels, cafes, and building renovation companies, and grew to net annual income of over $14 million US, employing hundreds of people both with and without disabilities (10).

Today, research in this area has evolved to include a focus on the health promoting benefits of social enterprise (11). Numerous Canadian examples of WISE exist today, and better understanding their impact on the health and economic integration of vulnerable Canadians is the subject of a nationwide array of studies funded by Employment and Social Development Canada.  One of these is the Queen’s University led WISE Impact study, which focuses on WISE in the mental health sector. Our research partnership includes seven different social enterprises across Southern Ontario, all of whom are in the business of not only supplying valued goods and services to their communities, but also creating work and work training opportunities for people living with mental illness and/or addictions.  Our work qualitatively and quantitatively explores outcomes experienced by WISE workers, and the factors that lead to satisfying work lives in a very vulnerable population of individuals facing a challenging labour market. We have so far been able to create a profile of the type of individuals who choose WISE as a work entry option, and look forward to presenting results on their work, health and social outcomes.

For more information on the WISE Impact project and our emerging findings, please visit

  1.          Martin JC, Lewchuk W. The Generation Effect: Millennials, employment precarity and the 21st Century workplace. McMaster University; 2018.
  2.          Fleury D, Cahill E. Precarious Employment in Canada: An Overview. Hill Notes. November 21, 2018.
  3.          Jetha A. For millennials, employment is a public health challenge. The Conversation, Canadian edition. September 6, 2018.
  4.          Antonisse L, Garfield R. The Relationship Between Work and Health: Findings from a Literature Review. San Franciso: H.J. Kaiser Foundation; 2018.
  5.          Coleman N, Sykes, W. & Groom, C. . What works for whom in helping disabled people into work? Department for Work and Pensions Working Paper No. 120. London: Department for Work and Pensions; 2013.
  6.          Mithen J, Aitken Z, Ziersch A, Kavanagh AM. Inequalities in social capital and health between people with and without disabilities. Social Science & Medicine. 2015;126:26-35.
  7.          United Nations. United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; 2006.
  8.          International Labout Organization. Disability Inclusion Strategy and Action Plan 2014-17A twin-track approach of mainstreaming and disability-specific actions. Geneva: International Labout Office; 2015.
  9.          Yunus M. Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing Needs. Philadelphia: Public Affairs; 2010.
  10.        Warner R, Mandiberg J. An Update on Affirmative Businesses or Social Firms for People With Mental Illness. Psychiatric Services. 2006;57(10):1488-92.
  11.        Roy MJ, Lysaght R, Krupa TM. Action on the social determinants of health through social enterprise. CMAJ. 2017;189(11):E440-E1.