Unsung Heroes 2023: Tanya Houghton, WorkSafeBC’s director of special care services, is always learning

WorkSafeBC's director of special care services is juggling kids, school and a challenging job.

Credit: Tanya Goehring

The Vancouverite is juggling two kids, school and a challenging job

If you happened to meet Tanya Houghton on the street, you’d be forgiven for thinking her job was selling sunshine. At least that’s the initial vibe I get when we meet at an East Vancouver coffee shop close to where she, her husband and her two children call home.

But the truth is much more grim (and much more real) than that. Houghton, who talks freely and smiles often, like a younger Susan Sarandon in a non-dramatic role, is the director of special care services for WorkSafeBC. In that position, she oversees case management for B.C.’s most severely injured workers. Though she insists several times throughout our conversation that she loves the job, she doesn’t deny that the work can take its toll.

“When I was younger, I’d say things like, Oh I compartmentalize it, or No, it doesn’t get to me,” she says. “I think the older I’ve gotten the more I realize that if it doesn’t get to you, that’s the problem.” She recalls a phone call in 2018 with one of her col- leagues after the death of her father-in-law. 

She said, How are you? And it was this very heartfelt, How are you? And I just burst out crying and started apologizing and she goes, Don’t be sorry, if you weren’t crying, I’d think there’s something wrong with you. I think it’s the same with this work.”

At least Houghton’s career has prepared her for the emotional rigours of her current position. She was born and raised in Langley and went to the University of Victoria to study human and social development and quickly got her social work designation. That led to what she calls her first real job, at an RCMP office next to two methadone clinics just a stone’s throw from the BC Lions practice facility in Whalley. “It was the most fascinating demographic, especially at the age of 23,” Houghton says. “I joked about it with a lot of our first responders about the things people let 23-year-olds do. It was crazy—I didn’t know what I didn’t know at 23.”

The next major stop was in Phoenix, where “some of the socioeconomic issues are quite different, but also not,” she says. She came back briefly before moving to the U.K. “My best friend moved there and my dad passed away. I was 27—I had a great job and an apartment in the West End, but I thought, if I’m going to do it, I might as well do it now.”

On the visit, she met with a couple of recruiters and ended up coming back six weeks later to work as the manager on a social work team. “You can move up much more quickly there, they’re so in demand for people,” she says. She met her future husband nine months in and ended up staying for the better part of five years.

Then came a year in Australia and New Zealand working as a state government consultant in the Department of Aging, Disability and Home Care. “It was a huge policy project to oversee governance for long-term care and home care,” she says. “The government contracted out 110 small agencies that we had to go and assess, review and determine if they had the right policy and governance structures in place. She notes that the project also included an Indigenous strategy, something she had never seen in Canada at that point.

With the 2010 Winter Olympics looming, the push to return home became too much to ignore. After a year as regional director of Vancouver-based social services nonprofit Open Door Group, she met some WorkSafe executives at a White Spot for breakfast. “They brought me in to special care services, which was a bit of an experiment,” she recalls. “They hadn’t until recently hired people into claims that were external—historically, it’s homegrown people. I had a decent amount of leadership under my belt. Their view was, You can lead, we just have to teach you the business, let’s see how it goes.”

It’s gone fairly well. Houghton has been with WorkSafe in a variety of roles for 12 years. “It’s the longest I’ve stayed with anything in my adult life,” she laughs. “Aside from my husband.”

In her current role, Houghton oversees some 150 staff and she notes that the mental health side of that number has grown rap- idly. Part of her portfolio has also been in dealing with the fallout from COVID, and she admits that part of the job weighed on her. “It was tough, the pressure was relentless,” she says. “The media interviews, radio, print. That on top of doing the job was a lot. I probably ran more than I’ve ever run during that time.”

But like that call with a colleague after the death of her father-in-law, Houghton argues that talking about things makes them more manageable. “Recently, we had our department state of the nation that I do every year, and I hadn’t done it in person since 2019,” she says. “I was talking about the number of workplace deaths and speaking about the volume increase between 2021 and 2022. It’s important to remember that that’s 217 people [total] who have died. Not 217 claims. For me as a leader, it’s important to display that level of vulnerability and remind ourselves of the weight of it.”

Houghton, who is currently getting her master’s in health administration at UBC (she insists she’s not going into health care, she just wants to understand it better), notes that people ask her frequently how she does it all with kids and school and work. “In some ways, it’s kind of a godsend,” she says. “Before I had kids, I could work the 10- and 12- hour days in a row. And I think this job needs you to stop and take a break… There are some situations that hit home. When somebody passes away and they have kids my kids’ age, you have to recognize that and make sure staff talks openly about that, too. You have to make sure that people who are crumbling aren’t like, Oh shit, she’s holding it together, what am I doing? You can hold it together and also fall apart in the same breath. That’s kind of how I think about it.”