‘I will be representing all specialisms – and I want to be optimistic about the future of OH’

Occupational Health & Wellbeing’s Professor Anne Harriss is the first non-physician to assume the presidency of SOM, the Society of Occupational Medicine. Nic Paton spoke to her about her hopes for the role, and why it is so important an OH nurse has stepped into such a high-profile role within the profession.

“A focus of my role will be ensuring that government and business understand the role of occupational health and asking for universal access to it. Covid-19 has highlighted the importance to the economy and public health of effectively supporting workplace health.”

So said Professor Anne Harriss on becoming the first non-physician to assume the presidency of SOM, the Society of Occupational Medicine, in June. Harriss, Queen’s Nurse, emeritus professor in occupational health, fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, honorary fellow of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine and (last but definitely not least in our view) CPD editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing, is undoubtedly a worthy successor to Dr Will Ponsonby.

Nevertheless, her elevation to one of the most significant, and high profile, roles within the profession also sends out an important wider message. As Harriss explains to Occupational Health & Wellbeing: “My role is about promoting, obviously, SOM, but also the wider specialism of occupational health. In 2011/12, SOM opened up its membership to people who were not doctors, so nurses, psychologists, health and safety, vocational rehab, all sorts of people. It is now very much about supporting occupational health and wellbeing professionals across the board, both nationally and internationally.

“SOM has overseas members, both physicians and nurses, and has established strong relationships with similar organisations across the globe including India and Australasia. I was able to meet with members of some of these groups on recent overseas trips,” she adds.

The role of SOM president involves wide-ranging collaboration with the profession’s leaders and professional bodies, but also Parliamentary advocacy. SOM’s ‘universal access to OH’ campaign is very much centre stage at the moment and with the government’s workplace health Green Paper expected during the autumn the in-tray is likely to remain full.

More widely, with the scale of the workplace health challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic becoming increasingly evident, the profession is going to need all the support and ‘voice’ it can get, concedes Harriss. “There will be lots of people who have mental health issues as a result of Covid, that I think is going to be a massive issue. Then there will be the question, which is only just emerging, of how to support all those people – mentally and physically – who are experiencing long-term symptoms or recovering from being very ill, or even in intensive care.

“If you’ve been that person – and we’ve seen all these people being clapped as they leave intensive care – the effect on your mental health will be quite significant. We also don’t really know what the long-term physical effects will be. On top of that there will be people going back to work who perhaps have cancer and their treatment has been modified, so there will be a lot of people with long-term health conditions that are not actually about Covid but are nevertheless Covid-related.

“There will be people who, whilst they have been at home, have perhaps been drinking too much, especially if they are living alone or are just stressed or anxious. There could be issues around the development, or worsening, of a gambling addiction possible through online gambling sites, as using such sites can be a strategy either to relieve the boredom of lockdown or even in the hope of a large, life-changing win. And domestic abuse; they could have been subject to that. So there are lots of things that occupational health may need to be picking up, and helping to support and manage, as people return to work,” Harriss adds.

First role in Oman

Harriss entered the profession in the mid-1980s and, like so many OH nurses when you speak to them, admits she “fell into” occupational health. “I had finished my nurse training at a London teaching hospital and consolidated this with a year of post-registration experience, after which I was absolutely broke. So I decided to go overseas and earn some money. My plan had been to go to Australia, but I only got as far as Oman,” Harriss recalls.

“I was working for Royal Oman Police, which had its own hospital. Within it there was a unit called the Force Medical Unit, which did A&E, primary care, sexual health, and forensic work, among other areas. We had all sorts of people coming in, everyone from fire service personnel through to scenes of crime people, and there were health issues related to their work.

“So it wasn’t the full remit of occupational health, but it had an OH slant. And I just decided that was the career choice for me. What attracted me was the fact you could be an autonomous practitioner. I also strongly believed in keeping people well, not just treating them when they got sick. So I just thought, ‘this is my niche’,” she adds.

On returning to the UK, Harriss trained at Royal College of Nursing’s Institute of Advanced Nursing Education before going on to set up an OH service with a big hotel chain. She then worked in sectors including oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and telecoms, among others, before becoming a lecturer/practitioner at RCN, where she wrote the first degree in OH nursing. In 2000, she set up the distinguished occupational health degree course at London Southbank University, which she led for a nearly a decade, until it closed last year.

I think there is a great opportunity for occupational health to come to the fore during and after this pandemic. But we’ve got to demonstrate that we can have a strategic influence

Harriss is also well-known for work overseas. She has undertaken pro-bono work, including supporting occupational health practice, in New Zealand. And in 2001 she developed and led a public health project in rural Limpopo, South Africa, which she has helped to deliver annually since.

Opportunity for occupational health

Finally, now the OH landscape is likely to be so dominated by Covid-19, what is her ambition for her tenure as president? One priority will be raising awareness of what SOM has to offer across the specialty, particularly to those who are not doctors, Harriss says, although she emphasises she very much intends to be a president for the whole profession.

“Yes, I am a nurse, but I will be representing all specialisms; I am not just there for nurses. However, because I have come from a non-medical background I can perhaps bring a different insight into the multidisciplinary challenges the profession faces, of how we can all work together more effectively and more collaboratively.

“Even with the challenges we face, I want to be optimistic about the future of occupational health; I am a glass half full person. I think there is a great opportunity for occupational health to come to the fore during and after this pandemic. But – and this is crucial – what we’ve got to demonstrate is that we as occupational health professionals can have a strategic influence,” Harriss adds.

Professor Anne Harris begins SOM president role, Occupational Health & Wellbeing, June 2020, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/professor-anne-harris-begins-som-president-role/

Make universal access to occupational health a reality following Covid-19, urges SOM, Occupational Health & Wellbeing, June 2020, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/som-urges-swift-action-on-universal-oh-support/

Workplace health Green Paper now expected ‘later this year’, Occupational Health & Wellbeing, July 2020, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/workplace-health-green-paper-now-expected-later-this-year/

One Response to ‘I will be representing all specialisms – and I want to be optimistic about the future of OH’

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    Eleanor Dady 8 Oct 2020 at 8:14 pm #

    So pleased to see you raising the profile of Occupational Health. I like the point that we need to have strategic influence as I am particularly passionate about supporting strategic leadership training for OH nurses.

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