Message centre – understanding and articulating the occupational health ‘brand’

Occupational health practitioners are, rightly, always focused on delivering excellence. But with government reviewing the future shape of OH, Nick Pahl argues that OH needs to grasp the opportunity to communicate better the real value it can bring to the table.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos describes the concept of branding as: “what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

So what, then, is the occupational health “brand”? How do people think and talk about occupational health when we, as OH practitioners, are not on the room? And how can we communicate better how occupational health is essential for the future health of the workforce?

About the author

Nick Pahl is chief executive of the Society of Occupational Medicine

At one level, of course, occupational health is arguably already a globally recognised brand. It has adapted over the years – from providing healthcare in industrialised settings to now working via telehealth and offering multidisciplinary services in the military, the NHS and service industries. OH keeps people safe and free from occupational disease in the UK and globally.

It is, quite rightly, perceived and recognised as a leader and champion of workforce health and wellbeing, of improving organisational culture and providing key evidence based interventions such as health surveillance and assessments.

A punitive service?

However, do people – employees predominantly – see it too often as a punitive service, as a means (in tandem with HR) via which to fire someone? Moreover, in reality, how recognised or understood is OH as a brand? How many times have you as an OH practitioner perhaps been confused with an occupational therapist or needed to explain what it is and what you do at, say, a social event?

OH is often currently perceived as being something to be called on at the end of a health journey, when an employee is in trouble or an employer is stuck as to what to do. This is rather than what it can be, namely a proactive friend right across the whole health journey, as well as delivering benefits for the whole of society.

I recently visited Dr Richard Heron, chief medical officer at BP, and was struck by the leadership role that occupational health provides across what is a huge organisation – summarised in a recent article.

Yet, even for someone with this level of profile within his organisation, when I showed a draft of this article to Dr Heron, he said: “I am proud to be an occupational health professional and to make a difference to the lives of workers, but all too often we are apologetic in public settings… If we cannot champion the discipline we cannot expect others to see its value.”

This also feeds into a wider discussion: what does OH’s role, perception and brand need to be in a fast-changing and increasingly fluid working world, yet one where health and wellbeing challenges abound? Is OH caught between the unexciting but important world of statutory duties and obligations – in essence our profession’s “works nurse” or doctor industrial heritage – and emerging issues such as big data and health technology, precarious gig economy working and self-employment, and the burgeoning workforce wellness/engagement agenda?

Once-in-a-generation opportunity

With such profound changes afoot, there is a strong argument to be made that OH needs to improve its brand identity, to be much more proactive about what it means, what it can do and the value it can offer, both now and in the future working landscape. I believe the government’s ongoing review of occupational health gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to articulate a new vision of occupational health – but only if we grab it with both hands.

The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) is feeding into this review, including holding regular discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions/Department of Health and Social Care’s Work and Health Unit, which is leading the review process. We are also working more widely, including engaging with occupational health business and stakeholders, such as the World Health Organization.

But don’t just take my word for it that things need to change. For this article I spoke to Professor Anne Harriss, this publication’s CPD editor and OH nursing and workplace health management programmes course director at London Southbank University. She told me: “Promoting the value of occupational health to both organisations and individuals must be central to the practice of occupational health professionals. National initiatives, including the move to include work as a health outcome within pre-registration medical and nursing curricula coupled with the Work, health and disability green paper: improving lives results in us being very well placed to further raise awareness of workplace health.

“We must grasp the nettle, ensuring we are no longer the ‘Cinderella’ service. Cinderella must be seen at the ball and be seen in all her finery!”

SOM recently hosted a special interest group discussion precisely on this topic of OH marketing and how better to communicate OH to the public and employers, how to widen the OH offer, for example by linking OH much more clearly with workplace wellness.

We agreed that a “value proposition statement” for OH could help to improve how OH is perceived and valued by customers. The group noted two documents, one produced by SOM for the UK and another for an international audience, on the value proposition of OH. These documents reviewed the evidence for OH and its unique value, how it benefits nations and organisation’s productivity, workplaces, and of course employees.

But what should such a statement include? A value proposition statement is a good way to demonstrate benefit and instil confidence that the brand will deliver on its promise. When crafting a value proposition statement for OH I’d argue practitioners need to consider the following three points:

  • The target market (in other words to whom are you speaking?). What should are target market be: large organisations, public versus private, small and medium enterprises, precarious gig economy workers, all of the above?
  • What needs to be your “brand promise”? This could be, for example, the quality of what you deliver (perhaps evidenced by, say, SEQOHS accreditation) or the results or business case or return on investment you can bring to the table.
  • What, precisely, is your service offer or your unique selling point, and how it that different from the competition? This could be, for example, the link OH offers between health and wellbeing or perhaps health, wellbeing and take-up of employee benefits.

When he reviewed this article, Dr Alasdair Emslie, chief medical officer at Duradiamond Healthcare and a former president of SOM, added that OH “branding” should be informed by six key considerations:

  • What we do that nobody else does
  • The societal, corporate and individual importance of what we do
  • The return on investment of what we do
  • The links to corporate social responsibility and productivity
  • The positive impact on reducing NHS and benefits costs
  • The fact we alongside primary care are the last generalist specialism

To give an example of what a value proposition statement can look like, at SOM we describe ourselves as “the largest and longest established nationally recognised professional organisation of individuals with an interest in health and work. Through its collective voice, SOM advances knowledge, raises standards and increases awareness to influence the future of occupational health. SOM membership is for anyone working in and around occupational health”.

So, take a step back and think: what would your value proposition be for your OH service? If you’re struggling, perhaps take a look at what other OH providers say on their websites.

Importance of marketing

Alongside articulating our value proposition, it is important that OH recognises and embraces the value and importance of marketing. When you’re busy or (only rightly) focused on delivering a high-quality service, it is only too easy for marketing to fall by the wayside or be seen as something secondary, an add-on to the “core” of what you do. But if OH practitioners want to raise their profile and their brand, effective marketing has to be part of this mix. And this needs to include:

  • Ensuring an effective tone of voice, for example creating content about OH that is insightful and relevant, engaging, and current
  • Using both traditional (for example leaflets and/or contact with HR) and digital marketing (for example business-to-business social media platforms such as Linked-In
  • Search engine optimisation of websites, so they appear higher when searched for online; and
  • Presenting at trade shows or events
  • Being published within trade or peer review publications, including (of course) publications such as Occupational Health & Wellbeing

Anyone who works in OH has a role in shaping and being proud of the OH “brand”. OH needs to ensure it is at the forefront of the employee health agenda, being proactive and not passive.

All of us within occupational health need not only to take advantage of the current interest in and engagement with occupational health by the government, but also work to project what OH does and can offer to UK and global businesses.

Clearly, we cannot do this alone. We need support from government to ensure, for example, there are enough properly trained occupational health professionals to meet demand for OH services as (we hope) it scales up. As we highlighted in the last edition of Occupational Health & Wellbeing, SOM is working hard to get the message out that OH is an attractive profession to join, including launching a new “career in OH” booklet and related YouTube video.

Finally, occupational health shouldn’t and mustn’t feel threatened by the increasingly multi-disciplinary nature of workplace health and wellbeing. We can build on the new interest in workplace wellbeing from the government and society to create constructive partnerships with linked providers such as in employee assistance, income protection, vocational rehabilitation and HR.

Ultimately, OH is the leading force in this “family” of services – and we need to be stepping forward, celebrating and articulating this. Let’s make these links and build a refreshed OH brand, fit for the future.

  • SOM hosts with the Faculty of Occupational Medicine a “why occupational health” campaign website with a related Facebook page. If you wish to contribute a blog or help support the campaign contact [email protected]


Pawlecki JB et al. “Role and Value of the Corporate Medical Director”. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 01 May 2018, 60(5):e215-e226. Available online at

“Occupational health: the value proposition”. A report from the Society of Occupational Medicine May 2017. Available online at

Q&A with Nick Pahl, CEO, Society of Occupational Medicine, 13 June 2018. EAP Association. Available online at

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