Leading the profession through a global pandemic wasn’t exactly what Professor Anne Harriss had expected when she agreed to become president of SOM, the Society of Occupational Medicine, last year. Nevertheless, as its first non-physician president, her year in the role certainly boosted the profile of occupational health nursing both within the profession and more widely, as she reflects to Nic Paton.
“It has been a year I will never forget, and an incredible opportunity.” So reflects Professor Anne Harriss on her year as president of SOM, which came to an end over the summer.
As one of the UK’s leading occupational health nurses, Harriss, who is also CPD editor of OHW+, was the first non-physician to assume the presidency of the society, a body that is often assumed to be primarily for occupational physicians, even though in recent years it has been working hard to broaden its reach and membership base.
A Queen’s Nurse, emeritus professor in occupational health, fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, and honorary fellow of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, Harriss was well-placed to follow in the footsteps of Dr Will Ponsonby in a role that, she had assumed, would be mostly about networking and advocacy for the profession, not to mention a good few social events.
As she tells OHW+: “I was expecting a nice, social year – going to meet the various groups, giving a few papers here and there but, really, quite social, as I was coming to the end of my time at London South Bank University.”
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and the biggest public health crisis to hit the UK – and the world – in generations of course rather put paid to that. “I had six months as president-elect, when it was all calm and normal, and then, suddenly, in February 2020 – I was made president-elect in June 2019 – Covid began spreading round the world. We had our first cases in the UK around the end of January/beginning of February. Then of course by the end of March, with the first lockdown, things really hotted up,” Harriss recalls.
“I was still president-elect at that point, as I became president in June, and so I was trying to support Will, who did an admirable job, too. Then from June it was just Covid, Covid, Covid. I was eating, sleeping, dreaming Covid.
“But it was also amazing who I got to work with; we were supporting people in key practice areas – whether that be practising as occupational health professionals in the NHS, or nurses and doctors on the front line.
“During much of the pandemic I do think occupational health professionals, in a way, got forgotten. We were there keeping everyone else fit and healthy and at work, but we were not the ones that get the recognition. The news crews, quite rightly, focused on the people who were working hard, working incredibly long hours, possibly putting their lives at risk,” Harriss adds.
Multidisciplinary pandemic response
To help rectify this omission, Harriss was instrumental in getting actor Miriam Margolyes publicly to sing the praises of OH nursing as well as thank the profession for its contribution to managing the crisis. However, it is the library of guidance and toolkits that SOM put together at speed, and which is still constantly being updated, that remains one of the things she is most proud of during her presidency.
I would often be working on things until 1am or 2am and sending things back and you’d see colleagues were then picking them up as soon as they got into work that morning. It was all hands to the pump.”
“The whole year, for me, was a highlight but if I had to pick some individual highlights, first and foremost, what was amazing was how we worked across multi-professional disciplines. There is a perception among many nurses that SOM is just for doctors, but it’s really not. It has got doctors, nurses, occupational psychologists, it’s trying to get more OTs to join,” says Harriss.
“We developed loads of tools and often against the clock. There was a group of us, including nurses and one doctor, who put together one toolkit in about two weeks, which is astonishing as it would normally have taken at least four weeks. Everybody worked together; it was like being at war.
“I would often be working on things until 1am or 2am and sending things back and you’d see colleagues were then picking them up as soon as they got into work that morning. It was all hands to the pump.
“We also developed and delivered many webinars and summits. We ran one summit with the Faculty of Occupational Medicine and the University of Glasgow looking at risk and Covid, and people such as Sir Michael Marmot involved in that. We had the statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and Dr Ivan Ivanov, the OH lead at the World Health Organization, speak at that and other events.
“We delivered another summit on long Covid, and again the people we got for it were just phenomenal. We worked with the Bevan Commission in Wales. We gained Royal College of Psychiatrists’ recognition for our mental health resources. Just before Easter 2020, we became aware of the dearth of appropriate PPE in health and social care settings, so we were active in lobbying around that, including getting questions asked in Parliament.
“I had the opportunity to attend high-level meetings with lots of stakeholders and other influencers, including several politicians. With [SOM chief executive] Nick Pahl I met with Labour leader Keir Starmer as well as the MPs Alex Norris and Stephen Timms, where we talked about universal access to occupational health.
“Universal access has been something on my priority list for a long time. Had it not been for Covid, that is what I probably have focused my presidency. But Covid really opens up that debate about having access to occupational health, that is not a reality for 50% of the population, yet those who don’t have access to OH are often the ones who need it the most,” Harriss adds, pointing to SOM’s ‘universal access to OH’ campaign as well as its recent summit on the issue as a case in point.
Putting OH nursing on the map
Through the response to Covid, there is now recognition that we can – all of us – collaborate effectively across all these disciplinary boundaries. I think being SOM president has definitely put occupational health nursing centre-stage”
What, then, does Harriss feel her year as president has done for the profile and recognition of OH nursing and nurses specifically?
“I may of course be a bit biased but I think my year as president has shone a bright light on occupational health and occupational medicine. It has put occupational health nursing on the map within SOM. Doctors and others who are members of SOM are definitely aware that OH nurses are a really dynamic group of professionals, that OH nurses have got a lot to offer. Certainly, the number of occupational health nurses who have become SOM members has risen since I became president.
“On top of that, through the response to Covid, there is now recognition that we can – all of us – collaborate effectively across all these disciplinary boundaries, whether it is with doctors, psychologists, occupational therapists or others. I think being SOM president has definitely put occupational health nursing centre-stage,” she adds.
What others have said about Anne Harriss’ presidency
“You are amazing Anne. I am glad I sat with you on that day at the SOM/FOM conference. I am happy to have rejoined and remain part of SOM, particularly being a member of the SOM Diversity & Inclusion Taskforce.
“I have been fortunate to be one of the members to have accessed SOM’s BAME executive leadership programme, such an eye-opener. You see the best in people and support them to thrive, of which you do so passionately.”
OH adviser Netsai Chirenda
“You have always been, but particularly during your presidency, such an advocate for occupational health, OH nursing and OH multidisciplinary teams. I feel you have really taken the organisation into the 21st century and aren’t afraid to push to modernise it further.
“You have a wonderful ability to see the best in people and support them to thrive. Furthermore, you couldn’t follow in anyone’s footsteps because the world has experienced a very different way of life. Even with the restrictions you have really raised the profile of OH.”
OH nurse Astrid Palmer
“You have been incredibly supportive and steered SOM through an unparalleled year regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact on work and those caring for those at work.”
OH adviser Lorraine Anderson-Cole
“When Anne became president of SOM she was taking on a role previously held only by physicians and this reflected the increasingly multidisciplinary membership of SOM. As the first nurse president of SOM, the role was potentially challenging but Anne has performed magnificently, ably representing and leading all the membership, raising the profile of SOM and occupational health, and effectively extending the SOM network with charm, tact and influence.”
Professor Ewan Macdonald, head of Healthy Working Lives Group, University of Glasgow
“Anne was a wonderful president of the SOM – supporting our multidisciplinary members with key resources to meet the challenge of Covid. She is a very effective chair both on webinars and the board – both collaborative and knowledgeable. Anne has helped shine a light on the value of occupational health. Thank you!”
Nick Pahl, chief executive, SOM