Class act

With
21 years of professional experience behind her, Lily Lim has moved into
education and is heading the drive to improve learning standards in the
sector.  By Kate Rouy

If
universities gave out degrees for enthusiasm, there is little doubt that Lily
Lim would have a string of letters after her name. As it is, she’s not doing
too badly. MSc, PgD Health and Safety, OHN Certificate, RN, PgCHE, MIOSH…

A
pretty remarkable feat by any standards, but for Lim, principal lecturer,
programme leader and pathway coordinator in occupational health and safety at
Middlesex University and newly elected chairwoman of the Association of
Occupational Health Nurse Educators, this has been achieved against a backdrop
of a writing disorder that would have severely slowed the progress of the most
determined scholar.

"I
have an interesting form of dyslexia," she says cheerfully. "I know
what I want to say, but find it hard to put it down. It takes a long time."

But
far from proving a stumbling block, her dyslexia has, she says, spurred her on.
"Yes, it has made things harder," she concedes. "But I use it to
encourage my students, to show them what they can achieve."

Malaysian-born
Lim joined the staff at Middlesex University four years ago, with a remit to
write an occupational health and safety programme. Completing the process
within a year, she got the courses approved and validated by the university,
the English Nursing Board (ENB) and the Institute of Occupational Safety and
Health. Along the way, she also found time to fit in her Postgraduate
Certificate for Higher Education.

"People
need to be trained to do a job," she says. "So I thought I should be
trained to be a lecturer."

Although
a relative newcomer to higher education, Lim believes that her 21 years in the
field of occupational health stands her in good stead for her teaching role.
She is also passionate about the benefits of further education for OH nurses,
many of whom, she says, are apprehensive about the notion of a return to
studying, especially if it comes – as it does for many of her students – after
years away from the classroom.

"All
our students are mature, and are working within health and safety," she
says. "This opportunity for them to study for a degree is brilliant: to be
in a university environment which can provide them with so much, and which is a
new experience for many of them."

Course
leader

Lim
is programme leader for three courses: BSc Honours Occupational Health and
Safety Management and Specialist Practitioner (Occupational Health Nursing);
BSc Honours Occupational Health and Safety Management; and MSc in Occupational
Health and Safety. Each of the undergraduate courses involves one day at
college a week, making up two semesters a year. Each semester is 15 weeks long.

The
university subsidises all part-time courses, and the degrees can take up to
five years to complete. The courses also allow for a lot of flexibility, so
anyone who has to postpone their studies can return at any time with the
credits they have already accumulated.

Both
BSc courses involve six modules, with 20 credits accrued per module. Core
subjects include health and safety management, risk management, hygiene and
safety technology, as well as research methods and project work. No exam work
is involved – "I don’t think exams are the best way of learning,"
says Lim.

For
the MSc, 180 credits are required, of which 60 credits are project work. The
core modules are the same as the BSc.

As
for the benefits of studying for a degree, Lim is in no doubt.

"Those
in occupational health with a degree have an advantage," she says.
"For years OH nurses have been doing excellent jobs, but with workplace
attitudes changing and more and more managers being graduates, if you are not a
graduate, it makes your life a little bit more difficult.  

"People
are much more likely to accept things at face value. Nursing training is very
technical, but often people do not equate that with a more managerial role.

Lim
also believes OH has to move with the times.

"In
occupational health there have always been pockets of excellence and people who
were role models, but the job is changing. Whereas there has always been an
emphasis on health promotion and the clinical care of people at work, there is
now a lot more management involved and OH is much more of a strategic role.
When I did my general nursing, OH was always ‘the sick bay sister’ – that isn’t
the case any more."

Lim
herself came to the UK at the age of 19 to train at Old Church Hospital in
Romford, Essex. But while nursing was a something of a family tradition, (her
mother was a midwife and one of her uncles a professor of public health in
Malaysia), she soon decided that her career should lie in an aspect of health
that was "more proactive".

"It
soon became clear that the reason a lot of people were in hospital was because
they did not look after themselves properly. So that is how I became involved
in occupational health. We can do so much to keep people fit and healthy and
protect them while they are at work."

Field
experience

Her
subsequent career involved occupational health work both in the public and
private sectors. She was an employment nursing adviser with the Health and
Safety Executive, and an occupational health adviser with the Post Office and
Lucas.

Lim
believes her broad range of experience has given her the ideal perspective to
devise a course which fulfills the needs of its students as well as the OH
profession itself.

"I
came into teaching because of the opportunity I was given to develop these
courses," she says. "I have seen thousands of OH nurses and have
visited a lot of workplaces, and I know how people work.

"I
also know that nurses, especially those in OH, need to be on an equal standing
with other managers in the workplace, and for that they need to be graduates."

Many
OH nurses, she says, are their own worst enemy when it comes to approaching
further education.

"Nurses
are very versatile, and a lot of them do very good jobs but they have very poor
esteem and do not recognise how valuable they are," she says.

"OH
is unique in this country. OH nurses have 
a lot of responsibility that in other countries would fall on doctors.
But until organisations accept that OH nurses are actually part of the
multi-disciplined team needed to run a company effectively, they will always be
seen as a secondary person, an afterthought.

"But
it is a two-way thing. Sometimes nurses do not meet management requirements and
that is one of the reasons why I am very positive about degrees in OH."

On
top of any academic requirements, Lim says an important part of the degree
ethos is to get OH nurses to think like managers.

"I
spend a lot of time getting nurses to write good management reports," she
says. "They need communication and presentation skills; they need to have
multi-disciplinary skills – the ability to persuade people. They have to
understand how a business works."

Role
model

Lim
says she has high expectations of her students, but is rarely disappointed. She
personally interviews all prospective candidates and has devised a programme
for new students including a pre-study course, study skills and a week-long
induction, during which students are familiarised with the university’s IT
facilities as well as aspects of assignment writing such as referencing and
presentation. "All the basic skills of being a university student,"
says Lim.

Motivation
isn’t usually a problem, however, she says. "I always say to them, forget
the teaching, feel the learning. But most people learn for themselves."

Lim
believes her students respond to her approach. "I like to think I am very
user-friendly. I am very honest with my students. They can come and complain to
me, but I want them to come up with a solution. I can’t stand whingeing. I
treat them as adults, as colleagues. But I also have to hold back, because I am
their assessor. At the end of the day, you cannot allow someone to be qualified
if they are not competent."

Future
vision

In
the meantime, Lim has another new role, as chairwoman of the Association of
Occupational Health Nurse Educators, a role she relishes as "a chance to
give something back".

"We
are a very small group, we meet about three times a year, but it is an
important role for me. The AOHNE was started as a support group to help fellow
educators. It can be very frustrating to work in small units by yourself and it
is good to have someone you can talk to."

The
association also offers fellow educators the opportunity to share good practice
through a database and a newly established web site, in order to raise the
profile of learning and teaching in OH.

Lim’s
vision as chairwoman continues her theme of the importance of education in the
OH profession.

"My
vision is that there will be an increasing demand for good occupational health
advice and support in the workplace," she says. "As occupational
health nurse educators we should be sensitive to our market requirements by
working proactively with all the stakeholders to ensure OH nurses’ education is
progressive, effective and efficient."

So
does she now see herself as a teacher or nurse? A mixture of both, she says.
"I will always be a nurse, but I am also a teacher and that role is
important to me.

"It
is fantastic to see a student change over a year. The students enjoy their
courses and that is very satisfying. When they have finished their projects
they should be specialists and have the self confidence to be able to adapt
that knowledge to other areas. That is the important thing.

"OH
is still a young career, it is a very hands-on job. It is also a very tough job
which doesn’t always get the respect it should," she says.

Above
all, says Lim, degree courses give students the tools to think for themselves
and move forward with their careers. She cites her favourite Chinese proverb as
an example of the benefits of a degree.

"If
you give someone a fish, the next day they will come back for another. But if
you teach someone how to catch a fish, they will be fed for life."

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