Occupational health practitioners need to use 2021 to “seize the moment” presented by the Covid-19 pandemic and push to ensure OH has a greater role, voice and profile within the workplace, one of the leading figures within the profession has said.
Professor Dame Carol Black, author of the seminal 2008 report Working for a healthier tomorrow and expert advisor on health and work to the NHS and Public Health England, made the call while delivering the SOM (Society of Occupational Medicine) Christmas lecture, “Occupational health on the front line”, earlier this week.
Dame Carol said that, while the pandemic had brought with it significant challenges around workplace health, it had also put the profession in the spotlight like never before.
Speaking to SOM members, she said: “I really want to start by congratulating you all and saying a big ‘thank you’ for your contribution to what has been going on with Covid. Because you have responded in an amazing way to the pandemic; you have really just shown your worth.
“But what I want to say, then, is ‘please seize this moment’. I’ve always felt, as many of you know, that occupational medicine and occupational health in general undersells itself. And we really have that moment to seize now; so please do that,” she added.
The pandemic had highlighted, and amplified, existing workplace health pressures around mental health and wellbeing, musculoskeletal health, presenteeism, generational health, women’s health and the lack of “good” (as in good for health) work.
But with that enhanced focus on workplace health came an opportunity to promote messages about the value of employers, and employees, having access to OH expertise, she argued.
“Covid-19 has given you the ability to shine and, I hope, to grow. I think you can become a really powerful lobbying organisation. There is very much a need for occupational medicine expertise within government; I think we would all agree that it is sadly lacking,” she said.
“Covid-19 has exposed the very close relationship between economics and health control; control of the virus and controlling the economy; enabling workforce physical and mental health and wellbeing, if you can do that you improve productivity and the economy.
“I think we should see Covid-19 as an opportunity to accelerate change, to make it [health and wellbeing] a high concern of CEOs, a boardroom issue, and a major KPI for managers. Take public health into the workplace and make OH a central part of that answer, and not an add-on; to my mind, that is extremely important.
“The pandemic has had so many bad things about it. But it has shown the need for, and the value of, high-quality occupational health services,” Dame Carol argued.