Innovative Researcher in Action
Interview with Professor Jennifer Swanberg, Ph.D
Champion for Work and Family
by Ivana Alexander
Jennifer E. Swanberg, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Director of the University of Maryland Work, Family & Well-being Research Group. Her research focuses on the development of workplace and public policies that promote worker health and work-life fit. In this issue, Dr. Swanberg discusses the impetus for and the implementation of her current research related to women, work, and wellbeing.
On her path to the social work profession:
Dr. Swanberg came to the social work profession by way of her work as an occupational therapist in an inpatient mental health facility in Massachusetts. Her work focused on the impact that psychiatric diagnosis had on adolescents’ ability to reach developmental milestones. While she was there she became concerned with macro-level decision-making regarding managed care, or intended cost-saving policies at the organizational level, which seemed to pit insurance company mandates against providing the best possible care for the patients she served. This led her back to graduate school to pursue a masters in management. There she specialized in human service organizations because she believed that the clinical needs of patients were not being considered in the organizational changes taking place as a result of the shift in healthcare policy. Dr. Swanberg continued her studies at the Heller School, Brandeis University receiving a doctorate in social policy. It was there that she became interested in a relatively new area of research focused on work and family, which would become one of the major themes in her research.
Dr. Swanberg continued her research in work and family when she left Massachusetts to join the Families and Work Institute in NYC as a Research Associate. There she had the opportunity to co-author the 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce, a national representative survey of the US workforce. Results from this study influenced employer practices and public policy conversations about improving the quality of jobs in the US as a strategy for enhancing work-life effectiveness. She later joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky School of Social Work. Her intention of being in Kentucky for a brief family-related stint turned into a fourteen year stay that included major professional and policy achievements. Of her time in Kentucky, Dr. Swanberg is most proud of her work as the Founding and Executive Director of the Institute for Workplace Innovation (iWin), an initiative that received seed-funding from the university president’s office and was part of the university’s economic development strategy. Through iWin, she and her team of researchers and practitioners successfully engaged business leaders from many of the top industries in Kentucky in rethinking the way work was done in an effort to enhance worker productivity, work-life fit, health.
On her journey as a faculty member at University of Maryland School of Social Work:
Dr. Swanberg joined the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Social Work in 2013 (SSW). She credits the community of current faculty at the University of Maryland SSW whose research focuses on organizations, supervision and management, workplace culture and employee health for incentivizing her decision to become a member of the faculty. Initially, she sought to continue her extensive research on Latino farmworkers in the horse industry that had been funded through the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), but she decided that this area of study was not feasible in Maryland. Subsequently, she completed her 5-year study on Latino farmworker health that resulted in a series of tools and resources for improving the health and safety of Latino workers and a 12-page bi-lingual safety guide for Latino workers. [http://www.workersafetyandhealth.com/information-for-workers/] The completion of this project in March 2017 has created more time for her on research pertaining to women, work and wellbeing.
On how her research informs the work-life discussion:
The work-life theme has been the thread connecting all of Dr. Swanberg’s research. Within this area, she has focused on improving the quality of low-wage jobs, how organizational factors impact work-family conflict, and the unique challenges that women face in the workplace regarding their health and wellbeing all with the goal of creating organizational and policy change. Currently, she is partnering with Dr. Kate Tracy, Associate Professor at University of Maryland School of Medicine, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, to conduct research on working women diagnosed with breast cancer and how this effects their cancer treatment decisions and outcomes. Often, women diagnosed with cancer must make difficult decisions related to managing their cancer care with work responsibilities, and Dr. Swanberg and her research team hope to obtain detailed information on how women are managing what she has termed “the work-cancer interface”. This involves understanding how job and workplace factors, such as scheduling, paid/unpaid time off, supervisor support and access to employer-sponsored health insurance factor into cancer treatment decision-making for survivors. As with all of her work, using research as the basis to inform meaningful conversations with organizational decision makers is only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Swanberg hopes her research will result in clinical interventions that are guided by the idea that all women, regardless of employment status, can “receive the treatment they need in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their employment or economic security.”
On her current methodological approaches:
Because she tends to choose research topics for which there is not much literature, Dr. Swanberg often starts her research process with exploratory studies. She believes that conducting an initial qualitative study can inform the basis for a larger study. Her approach has always been one of mixed methods from the beginning of her work as a researcher. “There is value in both,” said Dr. Swanberg. Mixed methods are especially important for influencing organizational and public policy as she sees it. We need the numbers, but we also need the stories because not every audience can relate to quantitative data and personal stories often resonate.
On how her research informs public policy decisions related to work and family management:
A major component of Dr. Swanberg’s doctoral education in social policy while at Brandeis University was an emphasis on using research to create social change. Specifically, using both qualitative and quantitative research methods with the ultimate goal of influencing decision makers in policy and in organizations. This background and training has been integral to her ability to successfully forge relationships with organizational leaders and policymakers that have resulted in changes to improve work-family conditions in several policy areas. One of her earliest influences on public policy came because of her work on the National Study of the Changing Workforce, published in 1997, which became the basis of an executive order issued by President Clinton. Her research interests regarding conditions for low-wage workers and work-life effectiveness have made her a sought-after voice in the national conversation on these issues. She continues to ensure that conversations about scheduling challenges, workplace flexibility and workplace policy consider the unique perspective of low-wage workers and the barriers they face. As such she is frequently called on to provide legislative testimony, appear on think tank panels, and consult with media outlets on these issues. Most recently, she participated in a national policy forum at New America, a Washington, DC-based think-thank, as a content expert on the scheduling challenges faced by workers in low-wage jobs. “Improving the lives of vulnerable working populations drives the focus and direction of my research” says Dr. Swanberg. “Conducting research to inform knowledge about a social issue is important, but what energizes me is knowing that my research has made a difference in the lives of US workers and their families.”
RESEARCHER SPOTLIGHT ARCHIVE