Learning zone – taking the temperature at first ever Faculty of Occupational Health Nursing conference

One speaker's very personal battle with alcohol and drug addiction was a highlight of the first FOHN conference

From gaining the confidence to write publicly through to one speaker’s personal struggles with addiction; from effective report writing through to managing workload – the high-quality CPD topics at the first annual conference of the Faculty of Occupational Health Nursing were both engaging and diverse. Nic Paton listened in

Leadership”, “collaboration” and “competence” are the three watchwords that underpin the Faculty of Occupational Health Nursing, and all three were very much in evidence at the faculty’s inaugural annual conference in Bristol in June.

The faculty brought together a diverse group of speakers to (as we shall see) discuss a broad range of topics, everything from lung health through to wellbeing; pay, job satisfaction and workload within the profession through to addiction, and some of the legal considerations around report writing.

Chief operating officer Christina Butterworth opened the proceedings by conceding that, while the faculty was still very much a “a fledgling organisation”, the conference was all about building momentum around its ambitious change agenda. As she said: “As occupational health nurses, we should start leading OH nursing. We will do that by making sure we have good professional development; that we ensure we have quality in practice and in how we deliver occupational health nursing. And that we think about the profession as lifelong learning.”

Writing, clinical supervision, wellbeing and lung health

Full disclosure time – the first speaker for the conference was myself, as editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing, with a presentation looking at “why write, how to do it well, and how by doing so you can change the conversation around occupational health”.

In essence, my argument was that, if OH nurses have serious ambitions to lead and shape the occupational and workplace health agenda, a key part of that needs to be developing the confidence and tools to write publicly, whether that be academic research, peer-to-peer or best practice articles (in outlets such as Occupational Health & Wellbeing), blogs or other public-facing content. Writing in this way can also help you to reflect upon and review your practice, and therefore potentially improve how you deliver your services as an OH professional.

Next up was clinical safety consultant Suzanne Pemberton, who made the case for a tailored approach to clinical supervision for the lone autonomous practitioner. Pemberton emphasised that being a lone autonomous practitioner should not just mean that “you’re a very lonely person who’s in charge”. As she said: “We don’t want anybody to be lonely; it’s not good for you; it’s not good for your practice, and it is not good for people that you care for.”

Pemberton was followed by Nancy Hey, director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, on “wellbeing at work – what does this mean for OH nursing?”. Hey talked about the challenges of understanding, and measuring, wellbeing. As she put it: “We should start designing for the promotion of wellbeing, not just the prevention or treatment of ill health. We should actually be designing-in things that support wellbeing.”

Professor David Fishwick, chief medical adviser at the Health and Safety Executive and a consultant respiratory physician, then spoke about “the working lungs – how best to keep them healthy”. His presentation emphasised that, even though the workplace has become much safer in recent years, especially in the UK, there is no room for complacency around the risk management of conditions such as occupational asthma, silicosis and mesothelioma.

Personal struggle with addiction

Perhaps the most inspiring presentation of the day then followed, a very personal account by Hannah Edgell, admissions co-ordinator at addiction charity ADT Healthcare, of her own struggles to overcome alcohol and drug addiction.

Edgell outlined in coruscating detail her battle with addiction from her teenage years onwards, first with cannabis and then alcohol. “The day after a binge – terrible anxiety, depression, self-loathing, guilt, shame. These are emotions we hear from most of the addicts we speak to. They are a huge part of the problem, and the reason that we use or drink, and they are also a huge part of the reason we are likely to relapse if we don’t focus on them,” she said.

She highlighted the depths of denial that someone in the grips of addiction can spiral into. “One moment of denial that always sticks in my mind was my husband pleading with me not to carry on drinking. I’d had a huge session the night before and had been drunk until passing out; he had carried me to bed. I woke up deciding I had to carry on because I felt dreadful and felt ‘I can’t deal with these emotions’. He was saying ‘please don’t drink today, you’ll end up in a mess, I’ll have to take a day off work and I’ll have to look after you’.

“In my alcoholic mind I remember thinking ‘this is all your problem, you’re controlling, I can probably ring an advice line and say I’m with a controlling man who doesn’t want me to have fun’. At that point I was falling down the stairs; I was really was choking in my sleep. I had fallen down stairs probably a week prior and had a head injury. But to me him asking me not to drink it was ‘what’s your problem?’. That is real insanity of addiction; it really gets you.”

Eventually she hit rock bottom and went into rehab, has now been sober for eight-and-a-half years and works with addicts through the charity. From an occupational health perspective, Edgell emphasised the need to recognise that addiction is often as much about addressing mental illness as it is about the addiction itself, and the value as an employer in helping, facilitating, someone to get the professional help they need.

As she highlighted: “Often part of the problem with people who want to go into rehab is ‘do I tell my employer?’. We would always suggest a minimum of a month in rehab, that is the minimum. Often we get ‘I can’t take a month off work’, ‘how do I hide that as holiday?’. So then we have say ‘do you feel you could be open with your employer?’. Can you go to them and explain what is happening? They probably have some sort of policy that allows you time off and will give you support. If they felt they weren’t going to be penalised and it wouldn’t affect future promotion and I think they would be more open to it.”

OH reports, workload and job satisfaction

The day then concluded with two presentations. First, Liam Entwistle, partner at law firm Wright, Johnston and Mackenzie, spoke about how to create an “excellent” occupational health report and some of the common pitfalls to avoid from a legal perspective.

And then the final presentation was by John Ballard, director of The At Work Partnership, who discussed research his organisation had carried out into pay, workload and job satisfaction among occupational health professionals.

As Ballard emphasised, those working in occupational health need to be supported from a health and wellbeing perspective when it comes to these issues just as much as they need to be providing similar support to their clients.

“We need to support people and offer job security. I think we need to allow occupational health professionals to make a difference in their work; because that is why you went into the profession. Are you are just expected to churn out stuff in exchange for money, well that is not I don’t think what nursing is about, and certainly not occupational health nursing,” he said.

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