The ABCs of employability in occupational health

Wooden blocks

Nic Paton looks at how to make yourself more marketable as an occupational health (OH) professional.

One of the constant refrains you hear within OH is how the lack of specialist practitioners, the shortage of skilled professionals on the ground, acts as a brake on the profession being able to fulfil its potential.

While budgets have been under pressure – and OH teams and individuals have had to be more proactive about making the business case for their continued existence – it is possible to argue that OH has never been more in demand. The recognition by managers of the importance of health and wellbeing in relation to the workplace has, if anything, increased during the downturn.

With the launch this year of the Government’s new Health and Work Service (HWS), demand for the skills and expertise that OH and occupational medicine can bring to bear – not to mention the need to be taking the lead in an increasingly collaborative, multidisciplinary environment (as Occupational Health looked at in the article Collaboration is the future for health and work) – is, if anything, only likely to intensify.

A profession on the up

As Becky Elliot, senior lecturer in OH at Leeds Metropolitan University’s Faculty of Health and Social Sciences points out, her course consistently records 100% employability among her students and she is by no means alone among OH educationalists in having a strong employability “strike rate”. Yet just because practitioners are in demand is no excuse to assume that, upon graduation or even once you are on your chosen career trajectory, you will simply be able to walk into a role.

Employability is an important skill, or perhaps more accurately an important mindset, for OH practitioners to have if they are going to be able to maximise the opportunities that come their way. This is especially going to be the case if your chosen career trajectory will involve you making the transition from the NHS to a more commercial environment or to a leadership role or, ultimately, to self-employment or running your own consultancy business.

Keep your information current

Even with demand as it is, candidates do themselves no favours if they make basic errors, warns Graham Johnson, clinical lead nursing for Bupa Health Clinics: “Employability is an issue for many OH providers, and many do struggle to recruit suitably qualified OH nurses; it is a small market. We, for example, occasionally receive CVs that are completely out of date – their previous job was two years ago and it has not been updated. So it is vital to make sure your CV accurately reflects what you are doing now, and what you have done.”

Johnson says that it is key to emphasise the skill set that is relevant to the business that you have sent your CV to: “Experience in the management of vaccination programmes, for example, might be important within an NHS role, but might not be relevant to a non-healthcare employer. Similarly, experience in hand-arm vibration [syndrome] is likely to be of limited value within the NHS, but to a commercial OH provider could be really important. It also stands to reason you need to sell any transferable skills you may have – for example, case management or being able to work independently or remotely.

“If you were interested in a role at Bupa, we’d expect you to have gone on to the website and have done some extensive research. Experience in clinical appraisal or supervision could also be helpful. More widely, an understanding of the commercial aspects of a business is important. OH is not just about dealing with the clients and so, if your experience is limited to the NHS, you might need to be adjusting your mindset.”

Chris Rhodes, national nurse manager at Capita Health and Wellbeing, agrees: “Those seeking work in OH can significantly improve their employability by ensuring they develop a comprehensive understanding of a wide range of employment types and workplace hazards – and the skills to deal with them.”

She adds: “Employers respond well to OH nurses who have clearly utilised opportunities to fully understand the workplaces and issues where they are providing advice. This may require effective research skills to ensure they are up to date with current thinking and practice in relevant areas. Those with new OH qualifications who are unable to secure immediate employment are likely to be able to secure agency work that may still allow the opportunity to work in a number of areas, which should be fully exploited as learning opportunities.”

What do employers look for?

Rhodes advises that OH employers look for a wide range of skills, including, but not limited, to:

  • excellent general OH knowledge;
  • articulate and effective communication skills;
  • the ability to produce accurate, clear, evidence-based and useful management reports;
  • enthusiasm for OH and absolute belief in its value, both to employers and in the wider public health agenda; and
  • commercial awareness and effective time-management skills.

“Commercial understanding can be an issue, but it is also just about learning how managers work, how to communicate in the right way,” says Dr Lucy Wright, chief medical officer at OH Assist (formerly Atos Healthcare).

“Clinicians are naturally used to writing clinical reports, but managers are used to receiving management reports. So it is about making the transition from writing in a clinical way to a way that is going to work for [managers]. It is also about being aware of the pressures and constraints [managers] are going to be under, especially around budgets and time management.”

As an OH practitioner you may have to work alone across multiple sites, which may prove an issue, Wright points out: “Especially if all you’ve known is the NHS clinic setting, it can be difficult to adjust to what is quite a different working environment.”

Creating a future workforce

OH Assist has recently begun collaborating with Derby University to increase its homegrown pool of OH expertise, Wright says: “Because we have such difficulty getting qualified nurses as the pool of OH practitioners has been decreasing, we have recognised there is a need to train up our own people. So it is about taking people who have been working within OH but who do not have an OH qualification – perhaps health promotion nurses or nurses who have been doing some of the technical aspects of medicals or immunisation – and offering them the chance to gain a diploma.”

Colleges and universities inevitably have a key role to play in not only giving future practitioners the requisite skills and knowledge, but also in preparing them for their future careers through employer placements and through using the expertise and knowledge on tap through university employability departments.

“The concept of employability is embedded within the course – from induction, we make it clear that [students] are going to be entering a profession whereby they will be selling a service to people who may not understand what the value of that service is,” says Elliot.

“It is about being able to explain the value of, say, having a full OH service as opposed to an absence review service. OH is in short supply, so it is also about being able to demonstrate practical and leadership qualities, being able to create change within an organisation, improve health and wellbeing and to add value.”

She adds: “At a more general level, we also bring in recruitment people and have sessions on things such as CV writing and how to present yourself effectively at interview, and we work closely with both the university employability team and enterprise team.”

Elizabeth Griffiths, lecturer in occupational health nursing at Brunel University, says: “My students do not generally find it hard to find employment. But we do make a point of bringing people in from the commercial side, and agencies, to speak to them.

“It is quite a tough world out there. You need to think about what specific skills you are likely to need – for example, audiometry or spirometry and things like that – and what it is you will be required to be proficient in. OH is a vast field, from private companies to local authorities to the NHS, so you need to be clear what it is an employer is going to be looking for. Many of the recruitment agencies offer help with things like CVs but also make use of online networks, such as JISCMail.”

Getting commercial

To thrive within the OH profession, you do need a “commercial cog” in your brain, says Anne Harriss, course director for OH nursing at London South Bank University (LBSU).

“You need, obviously, to tick the theoretical boxes and to be trained to the appropriate Nursing and Midwifery Council/Specialist Community Public Health Nursing standards. But you also need practical skills and a different mindset to general nursing,” she says. “What you can sometimes find is someone is qualified as an OH nurse, but finds it hard to make the jump between theoretical and practical issues. You need to think: ‘If I want to be employed as an OH nurse, what is an employer going to want me to do?’ So if it’s going to be, say, case or attendance management, you need to be thinking about that very much from the OH perspective. It is not just about knowledge or competence, but how you go about your job.

“Quite a lot of people who want to make the career move into OH do not seem to be able to sell their transferable skills very well – you need to think hard about what these are. It might, for example, be things such as working with people with complex needs, working in a multidisciplinary team or having effective interpersonal skills.”

Harriss adds: “The role of the OH nurse is very different to that of a general nurse because you are not primarily the advocate of the patient – yes, you will be giving impartial advice to both the employer and employee, but it is possible some of that is not going to be in the general interest of the employee. You could be saying ‘you are fit to work to do x, y or z’ while the employee is trying to get a cushy number. That is something some OH nurses can find difficult to adjust to at the beginning.”

Like other universities, the LSBU course has close links with its university employability service. It also, again like many universities, makes use of its alumni – for example, the university is using one graduate, Jo Kitney, to provide career coaching for students, despite her being based in Australia.

Leverage university links

The links a university has with employers are also vital – and should be something prospective students look at closely when deciding on an OH course. For example, LSBU works closely with OH provider Hampton Knight. A group of 25 LSBU students was recently invited on a factory visit to a large engineering company that Hampton Knight provides OH services for in order to gain an insight into some of the issues OH can face – specifically around risk assessment and surveillance – but also to give the students exposure to a commercial, factory-based workplace environment.

“The commercial setting is so different to the clinical setting; you just have to hold yourself differently and think differently,” explains Julie Routledge, OH manager at Hampton Knight. “My advice to any new OH adviser is to join a team – try and join a big organisation where you will be able to be a team player and feel your way, don’t try and start off as a standalone practitioner.

“How you interact with people at all levels is so important, from the people on the shop floor right up to making a presentation to the board. I need to know you can speak to people from all levels about anything from bowel cancer to bunions; from a major incident to someone who is dealing with his wife having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. You need both effective verbal and written skills, as well as the ability to adapt your style and skills to your particular audience.”

Another organisation with links to LSBU is Surrey Police, which has run placements for students and has even recently recruited an LSBU student as an OH adviser.

“It is about getting the practical and clinical skills and experience, but also about making the psychological leap from being a nurse to an OH adviser or OH nurse. It can be a real change of mindset,” the force’s OH manager Liz Eades says.

“Try and get up to speed on some of the general issues within the industry you are applying to – so, for example, for the police it might be being able to talk about some of the discussions that have been going on around pay and conditions. But if it was, say, an airline, the issues might be completely different. It is just about showing you are engaged with that industry. If you can link some of those issues back to health or issues around OH practice that will really help.”

Christina Butterworth, president of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners (UK) and head of health at BG Group, agrees: “It is important you research the organisation and the industry and find out about the health issues within it.

“Every organisation is different and, while you may have the core skills and experience, you need to match them to what the organisation needs. Increasingly within OH, it is about more than core skills – you need to understand how to make an effective business case and how to influence your key stakeholders. You also need to understand the value of networking and benchmarking.”

The recruiter’s view

“It is vital to keep an accurate record of everything you have done, both your experience and your responsibilities, even if that work was supervised,” says Audrey Dean, business development manager for recruitment company Key People.

“Keeping a detailed record can really add to your CV and help you to present yourself to employers in the best possible light. Often, people do not value or recognise the experience they have had – for example, you might have been involved in some health surveillance or case management, a routine vaccination or immunisation programme, or a wellbeing initiative; it all helps.

“Polish your CV. Think about what transferable skills you have from previous roles that might be applicable to an OH situation – and it might even just be things such as report writing or managing specific tasks or projects.

“The interview process is, of course, hugely important. You should have researched what is going on within OH – so read around the journals – and you should have done a lot of preparatory work about the organisation. It is also helpful to get some exposure to things such as service level agreements, budgets and the legal aspects of employment and health and safety. Finally, it is vital to show strength, character and passion for what you do.”

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