A new starring role for Occupational Health

“By George she’s got it!”

For many, that reference will be instantly recognisable. It represented the enormity of the challenge faced by Eliza Doolittle as she fundamentally changed the way she communicated to the world.

The connection to Occupational Health (OH) may be less obvious, but I believe it has relevance. Because Occupational Health also needs to re-examine its role, and perhaps reshape its way of communicating, to reinforce its relevance for the future.

Occupational health is a specialty that has strong contribution to make to organisations, and a significant opportunity that is reinforced by lots of well published data. Yet we often remain a hard sell because our customers see us as cost, not an investment.

Building on the status quo

I have been fortunate to work in many roles – including provider, commissioner and reviewer of occupational health provision. Over many commissions, the message from employers has been crystal clear and simple. They just don’t understand what occupational health can do, should deliver, or its essential role in key business decisions.

In major businesses things are not too bad: well-integrated senior occupational health leaders can command the respect of their board level contacts and have established strong levels of trust.

Sadly, many OH practitioners can only envy that position. When I attend events, I often hear stories to the contrary from frustrated professionals who are not regarded in the same way, and who frequently face reviews and resource cuts.

OH leaders and their teams or service providers are, at best regarded as bit-players with only a minor role to play in the business.

At long last, changes in the employment and policy landscape are promising the opportunity to alter that position.

The growing role of Occupational Health

Ten years of strategic review and seeking insight from the profession has brought our Government to create a Health and Work Unit and announce a significant consultation paper. The Prime Minister’s office recently announced initiatives which aims to make occupational health support accessible to all.

This has only come about through the efforts of many academics, champions, educators and ‘coal face’ workers that have helped build recognition of the critical value of occupational health.

There is a growing business case for good Occupational Health in organisations. Employers must respond not just to Government policy and Public Health strategy, but also step up to meet their legal duties. There is an enduring need in every business to have productive, efficient and effective workers if they are to thrive. But perhaps most critically, every organisation must adapt to the changing demographics that result in more people of working age with long term conditions and disabilities. That creates a stronger need and environment for good Occupational Health provision, and good employee health management overall, than ever before.

Preparing occupational health for its new role

The next phase will determine the future of the OH speciality – but success is going to require work.

In the inevitable haste of organisations to ‘gear up’ to enable wider provision of occupational health support, it is up to the OH sector to ensure it doesn’t miss the opportunity to address some of the issues that have held the specialty back.

In my view, research, innovation and broader training opportunities are the triad that will drive success.

As we develop systems to support OH practitioners and users of OH services, we need to ensure we can collect the data that helps to understand what works best. Rather than simply counting activity we need to be able to record outcomes and impacts.

The world around us is changing and technology is already hugely more powerful and significantly cheaper than it has ever been. There is an opportunity for OH technology to do much more than simple records storage and scheduling of OH appointments to enable capacity, accessibility and best use of scarce clinical experts and professionals.

At Empactis we have recognised these needs and designed our health platform around them, so that OH can leverage the wider opportunities of digital platforms. Within the Empactis system, workflows enable prompted and supported decision-making, coupled with a clear record, created in real time, of what has been done, and what the outcomes hav been for every case. This supports both clinical users, and the organisations that use us, to improve processes and ensure consistent application of agreed best practice.

Sometimes it is time to accept that new ways of doing things have significant advantages. Eliza Doolittle recognised it, and so must the Occupational Health profession. It is time to not just accept change but speak up to communicate our value – or risk that others may speak for us.