Continuing our series unpicking a ‘day in the life’ of OH practitioners both pre and post Covid, we spoke to OH adviser and mental health trainer Libby Morley-Hassanali.
How did you come into occupational health?
I’d never heard of occupational health as a “thing” until 2011. After a break from “traditional” nursing, the arrival of kids and living in Berlin for six years, I completed a return to professional practice (RPP) diploma and stumbled across OH.
About Libby Morley-Hassanali
Libby Morley-Hassanali runs Mindshift Consultancy
I knew that my passion was more about talking to patients than in the practicalities of wound-care or toileting. I had strong beliefs that emotional health and lifestyle were linked to physical health. I wanted to connect with people “before” they became unwell.
An advert caught my eye… OHA on a building site. As I explored the role of an OHA, I became seriously interested.
The challenge was then set; in order to work as an OHA I needed a qualification, and in order to gain a qualification I needed to be working in OH! It was a “right place, right time” situation and on applying for the job my new employer agreed to sponsor my studies at Warwick University.
I did not have a clue during my first weeks on site! Surrounded by noise, dirt, smells (my office was next to the men’s loo in a porta-cabin). I eventually found myself growing in confidence and completing skin checks, hearing tests and giving a million flu vaccines often via massive, tattooed arms (after they joked about dropping their trousers, of course!).
Tell me about your role, how long you have been doing it and what you do?
In 2014 I began delivering mental health first aid courses (MHFA), and in 2016 I took a leap to build up my training business as an independent OHA and MH trainer.
Whilst working on an assignment for the diploma in OH, I discovered MHFA England and self-funded to become a trainer. I felt this truly played to my passion and having found increasingly that management referrals contained elements of stress or mental distress, it became clear that most managers and organisations had limited knowledge on how to support this.
In my twenties I had experience of anxiety and depression and studied counselling and transactional analysis. I have always encouraged people to explore what’s going on “on the inside” and I seem to be able to put people at ease.
Like my feelings towards the “hands-on” part of general nursing back in the late 1980s, the part of OH nursing I enjoy the least is health surveillance. However, let me listen to people, let me guide and support and it just doesn’t feel like work to me!
So, this is what I do now! I write and deliver a variety of courses related to stress and mental health and also do ad hoc management referrals.
What are the most common occupational health concerns/challenges that you face in your role?
On the occasions when I am doing a management referral it’s always a challenge to keep the client on track for me to get the most relevant information that will enable me to write a report!
I find it’s a delicate balance of allowing time for them to speak yet taking the main points that add value to any recommendations relevant for their employer to find useful.
Further, it’s crucial to have a decent management referral from which to start and that doesn’t always happen!
Another challenge is around getting an organisation to see the benefits of implementing training related to stress and mental health for all staff, when budgets are limited.
There is enough evidence now that shows a massive need for creating a culture of compassion that supports workplace wellbeing, plus of course the legal requirement to perform an organisational stress risk assessment, and I sometimes get frustrated that neither of these needs are seen as a priority.
Can you describe an “average” day?
My work is so varied that I genuinely don’t have a typical day! It’s a mix of heading out to an organisation to deliver a training course which often involves staying in a hotel (pre-Covid), working from home to create new training courses or do all the admin around being self-employed and meeting a client for a face to face or via the phone to assess their fitness to fulfil their role.
A large part of what I do is about creating new work, so LinkedIn features a lot plus attending conferences. It’s also crucial that I stay up to date and keep on learning so I read plenty and go to as many training courses as a delegate that I can afford.
When I am working from home there’s always enough time to walk the dog and eat a decent breakfast plus of course stay on top of the domestic chores!
What would you say are the best/worst elements of your role?
Meeting people can actually be the best and the worst! Most of the time the people I meet have similar passions but every so often I come across someone who challenges me and if I am tired or not in the mood then I (very briefly) consider packing it all in to become a professional dog walker!
The best bit has to be the variety; I rarely feel bored or unchallenged. Working for myself is also fantastic as I like the independence and flexibility, but on the flip side, working alone can bring its challenges… for example when something like IR35 or GDPR comes along and you haven’t got a clue!
What have been some of the most unusual/memorable moments in your career (either in your current role or a previous one)?
Being awarded a distinction for my MSc in workplace health at the University of Nottingham was completely unexpected! My first role as an OHA was based on a building site!
I had virtually no experience and was studying for my diploma alongside being the “site nurse”. I was invited to dress up in all the safety gear and walk up onto what would eventually become the roof of the building! This meant walking up outdoor, open metal staircases… I was terrified and very slow!
We’ve all been affected by Covid; has there been any positives for you?
All my work was either postponed or cancelled, and for a while I felt deflated and unclear what to do; but with most challenges there comes opportunity!
I was able to finish writing a new course on performing an individual stress risk assessment and meet the tough criteria to get it IOSH approved and licensed. I piloted this with the wonderful OH community and now have a new offering that is growing in popularity. I’ve also been working remotely for an NHS OH department and since last June have spoken with over 170 staff affected by Covid, initially assessing their Covid risk and more recently supporting staff with mental distress.
I set up a “Podcast Club” for OH colleagues and this was a welcome way of informal learning and has led to some strong new friendships. I feel it’s a shame that it’s taken Covid to shine a brighter light on mental fitness; all the social and workplace risk factors for mental decline have always been there.
I am now being approached by more organisations regarding both training and management referrals relating to mental health.
Any advice or tips for surviving/thriving as a successful OH practitioner?
Lean on those with more or different experiences. Never worry that you will be seen as stupid if you ask about something.
Finally, if you were able to go back in time and pass on any advice to your young OH self, what would it be?
Don’t try and fix everybody’s problems! Stick to your remit. If you’re unsure about the wording on a report back to management then sleep on it (if the service-level agreement permits) and revisit… you will almost always come up with a better phrase or see things more clearly.
Be prepared for the extremes of people and environments you might find yourself in! From construction workers to scientists, office managers to engineers and musicians to vets!
You’re likely to be wearing safety shoes and high-viz clothing one day and “office-smart” the next! Be clear on the role of an OHA and expect to have the occasional challenge from HR or health and safety staff! Also, do a legal skills course and a report writing course!