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GSSW's Sabbath Earns Major CDC Grant

Erika Sabbath (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Sept. 4, 2014

Erika Sabbath, a newly arrived assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work, has been selected for a major grant through a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program that supports early-career scholars.

Over the next three years, Sabbath will receive $324,000 for a Mentored Research Scientist Development Award, known as a K01 grant, from the CDC and its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The grant, the first of its kind for a GSSW faculty member, provides “support and ‘protected time’ for an intensive, supervised career development experience in the biomedical, behavioral, or clinical sciences leading to research independence,” according to the CDC.

The grant will enable Sabbath, a researcher on issues related to occupational health, life-course epidemiology, health disparities, and healthy aging, to focus on her research project “Quantifying Economic & Health Effects of Psychosocial Workplace Exposures” during her first three years at BC.

“This is a very exciting opportunity for a number of reasons,” said Sabbath, who was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health Center for Population and Development Studies prior to joining BC this fall. “The K01 grant allows you to learn the skills needed to manage a federal grant – both from scientific and leadership perspectives – from an experienced mentor. Those skills then enable you to be competitive for future funding opportunities.

“The grant is also a way to explore a new area of research and have the time to really invest in growing your knowledge base and skill set. For me, those new areas are economics and workplace interventions.”

Sabbath’s mentor for her project is Glorian Sorensen, director of the Center for Community-based Research at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, who is leading a study that serves as a basis for Sabbath’s work. Sabbath’s research for this project seeks to quantify the economic and health impact of work-related stress among hospital employees. Many kinds of stress – such as lack of flexibility in work arrangements or bullying by supervisors – disproportionally affect lower-income employees, Sabbath explained, and are linked to health problems ranging from depression to workplace injuries.

Sabbath will also receive mentorship from senior faculty at GSSW, including Associate Dean for Research David Takeuchi and Professor Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes.

While work stress has also been loosely linked to organizational issues like turnover or absenteeism, the actual economic impact of these stressors on hospitals has never been calculated.

“The purpose of the research is to give the employer evidence of how work stress can affect their bottom line,” she said. “For example, if you show the effect of bullying in the workplace costs the hospital ‘X’ amount of dollars due to lost productivity and health issues, the employer may be more motivated to address those stressors, which would benefit not only the employer, but also the worker’s health and wellbeing – a win-win.

“Once we finish this grant, the next task is to create a workplace intervention that will address certain kinds of stress, and measure the impact of that program both from the employee and employer perspective. Right now, we want to create the motivation for the employer to enact changes. Next, we can develop the tool enabling the employer to accomplish this.”

Sabbath said the Graduate School of Social Work might appear an unlikely setting for someone with her academic background – she holds degrees in social and behavioral sciences from the Harvard School of Public Health – but she sees an advantage in the blend of disciplines.

“A major reason why I came to GSSW is that it has a very expansive view of social work as a means to promote positive change in multiple environments and make people’s lives better. Applying social work tools to what have traditionally been seen as public health problems could make a meaningful impact on both fields, and on the communities we work with. I’m very happy to be starting my career off here on such a positive note.”