Guest blog for Occupational Health Awareness Week by Janet O'Neill and Imogen Cardwell
Occupational health nurses make a real difference to the health of workers. Employment and health form a virtuous circle: suitable work can be good for health, and good health means that people are more likely to stay employed, therefore having an impact on the wider economy and social determinants of health. It is a rewarding and interesting career in which work is a health outcome and therefore provides a unique perspective on health. Our focus is not just on people but on organisations and populations. Each workplace has a culture which we can positively influence. When influencing the health of the workers, we are also influencing the wider public health with the aim of health improvement, risk reduction and health protection. The work is varied as each role and organisation has different elements, environments, and risks.
Here are five reasons why nurses should consider a career in occupational health (OH):
Lots of variety
We learn about organisations, industries, businesses, people, risk, and types of work, with each type of work having different factors to consider within the context of health. Each person has a unique health status and the effect of work on health and vice versa can be measured in many different ways. We work within the biopsychosocial model of health and therefore the role can often seem like detective work. Yes, there are commonalities in both health and work but also many unique elements that need to be investigated.
Every organisation, every role and every person is different. The health risks, needs and aspirations vary from organisation to organisation and job to job and therefore even if OH nurses become experts in a particular industry, they are always exposed to learning about different health conditions and how these impact people and work. There is also opportunity to move from one industry to another, which leads to further variety, learning and development.
Working for a provider, you can be exposed to a number of different industries, roles and health concerns. We are never bored in this role as we are constantly amazed and interested by the people we come across in all walks of life. In other healthcare settings we rarely see the whole person. How many hospital nurses really consider what someone does for a living, yet how important to us all is our occupation, our purpose, our way of supporting ourselves and our loved ones. OH nursing allows us a far more in-depth view of people which is endlessly fascinating!
Proactive and making a difference
Our goal is preventative health care, part of a public and organisational health function. In most situations, we aim to provide proactive health advice, be part of that proactive risk assessment to reduce risks to health, to provide individual and organisational advice and support on health. Most legislations surrounding the work we do are about protecting and supporting people which puts us right at the forefront of proactive people. Most organisations are only as good as their people and we are the health advice and support. You can’t get more empowering than that. During lockdown OH lead the way in protecting the workforce, the NHS, those that had to continue in the workplace and those who had their lives changed to home working, bringing a whole load of other health impacts.
The way we see it, a good OH workforce brings everything together. We educate individuals on how to protect their health from risks in the workplace. We also provide advice and support to individuals around their own personal health challenges; we have the luxury of time that most GPs and primary care providers don’t to explore the health issues through the lens of the impact on the ability to work. This is a really important role when we consider the ageing workforce and the increase in the number of chronic conditions.
We educate managers and leaders on when and how to monitor health to reduce the risk of any employee or colleague becoming seriously unwell. We provide the early intervention that we as nurses always aspire to. Being able to support an individual in work with health concerns often helps to reduce the risk of them becoming seriously unwell. We make sure that the benefits of work are maximised whilst ensuring the risks are mitigated. What is unique is that we are actually able to provide information to the organisation on what impacts health and wellbeing and therefore be proactive from an individual and organisational angle. Good- safe- work is good for health and we have the opportunity to advise organisations on what good and safe work looks like.
No other nurses sit in the unique position of being able to influence not only people but organisations and therefore the wider economy and social determinates of health. Our reach is really as wide as you would like to take it but also there are a lot of choices in what elements of OH you wish to focus on, which is unique in itself. For example, some people really like attendance management and supporting people to remain in or return to work, others prefer the medical side of the work, undertaking metric assessments and reporting on fitness to work and there are those who prefer the immunisation and phlebotomy side. Some like to take on the mentoring and teaching roles, clinical governance, strategic roles and even research.
Research on health and work is essential for the future of a healthier, more productive workforce. Some like to do all of these, a little bit of everything. Every day can feel completely different. One day you could be working from home doing telephone assessments, the next you could be in uniform supporting NHS workers with vaccinations, and the next you might be on a construction site performing safety-critical medicals. No other nursing role provides such access to so many different environments.
Working in OH you are an autonomous practitioner, and what is really empowering is that the positive impact one can have is trifold – to the person, the organisation and the wider economy. We make autonomous decisions (within our scope of competence of course!) and through exposure to constantly dynamic situations, we are always developing professionally. That said, it should not be considered an easy option, an enquiring mind and the need to adapt are essential traits.
There is scope to be the practitioner you want to be and deliver the service that suits you, within an incredibly supportive community of fellow OH clinicians. Everyone supports each other no matter which industry or role you work in. This must be one of the most inclusive and diverse professions - there is something for everyone and everyone is celebrated. As an autonomous practioner, you learn about business and this has really helped individuals who want to be their own boss; many OH practioners do have their own businesses or work self employed once they are skilled and competent. The opportunities are immense.
OH nurses influence at every level and that influence can go a long way to improving lives. Very few organisations stand still these days, they are constantly evolving and developing as does health, and government strategies, especially around health and disability. Therefore, organisations rely on OH practitioners to help them keep up to date and also to improve the health of their workforce. A happy and well workforce leads to better productivity and our influence has this reach.
Influencing people and influencing organisations has the prospect of improving public health as a whole. The prominence of OH during the COVID-19 pandemic provided clear evidence that OH makes a vital contribution to the development of health policy. Work is such an important facet to people’s lives and being able to influence positive change in the workplace which directly benefits individuals is really quite special. We influence strategy including government strategy - not many other nurse specialties can say that.
This is the seventh in our series of guest blogs for Occupational Health Awareness Week 2022 (19-24th June). This blog was written by Janet O’Neill and Imogen Cardwell, PAM OH Solutions.