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Global Leadership in Occupational and Workplace Health

Posted by Ann Caluori | Thu, 04/03/2021 - 12:00


Guest blog by Dr Jenny Napier


Dr Ivan Ivanov, who leads the World Health Organization (WHO) global programme for Occupational and Workplace Health, gave international SOM members plenty of food for thought in his January webinar. The wonderfully global audience included delegates from India, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, the US and UK. Dr Ivanov started with the premise that there is no health without occupational health, moving on to consider how occupational health practitioners can shape the future.


One clear theme was the importance of building connections beyond occupational health, and dialogue with the whole range of medical specialisms, particularly public and emergency health, primary care, and chief executives and business partners within global supply chains. The current pandemic is challenging the profession of occupational health to extend its impact in multiple areas, not least of which is the industry of animal husbandry.


Highlighting the importance of language in building relationships with stakeholders, we learnt that the very name of our profession can get lost in translation across the globe. Thus the programme Dr Ivanov leads is called Occupational and Workplace Health. Even without international language barriers, within the UK itself, when I say I practice occupational medicine, about 80% of the time the person I’m speaking to asks me what I like about practising occupational therapy! This highlights a core issue for occupational health leadership – how can we positively influence worker and workplace health if few people understand who we are and what we do? Dr Ivanov challenged us to a revolution. Is it time for a new name for the specialty? What about workplace medicine or workplace health? I know that would require an international shift, and that a lot of book and course titles would need to be revised, but perhaps such an upheaval could clarify what we stand for. For the remainder of this blog, I will try that name on for size.


The good news that Dr Ivanov shared is that workplace health is becoming better integrated within UN resolutions, with efforts to scale up the promotion of healthier workplaces, and some of this process is happening by building bridges with primary and public health.


I found it particularly interesting to consider two approaches to workplace health:

  1. The labour approach, focused on workplace safety and defined by the organisational boundary. In this approach health promotion may be particularly driven by law and procedures. 
  2. The public health approach that considers all workers, not only those currently in employment, with health promotion practices based on epidemiological evidence. In my view, particularly with a more flexible and precarious workforce, and with the well-known challenges of bringing workplace health influence to SMEs, taking a public health approach could offer a powerful and exciting adjunct to our familiar ways of practising.

So what does all of this mean for global workplace health? Dr Ivanov stressed the need for listening and understanding other stakeholders who often have different lexicons, perspectives and agendas. Workplace health professionals could help broker these relationships. Our expertise already involves building three-way dialogue between management, workers and health professionals. The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of workplace health. To be true leaders of workplace health, we need to keep building relationships, grow the evidence base for our interventions, and raise awareness of the connections between good work and good health. We also need to communicate the message – to health professionals, politicians and business leaders – that there can be no health without workplace health.


Dr Ivanov kindly shared a bibliography of WHO COVID-19 guidance relevant to workplaces, which is shared here.


 Dr Jenny Napier is chair of the SOM Leadership Group.

 This is the first blog in our Leadership series.

 More information about our Leadership webinars here.

 SOM members have access to Leadership resources in the Members Area.