Occupational health profile: Hilary Winch, director of Syngentis and OH head at Norwich University Hospital

Norwich University Hospital. Photo: High Level/Rex.

Hilary Winch gives an overview of her career to date and explains some of the things she has learned from her time in the profession.

Hilary Winch is director of nursing and quality at NHS social enterprise Syngentis, and head of workplace health, safety and wellbeing at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. In this article, she talks about her commitment to quality in OH and reveals how she originally made her start in the profession without any OH qualifications.

How did you get into OH?

Hilary Winch

Hilary Winch

My interest in workplace health and safety commenced at the conclusion of my general nurse training. As part of my final exams, I chose the topic “safety for nurses” as one of my assignments and studied this in the early 90s. However, I was finally drawn to consider OH as a career pathway in the late 90s when I felt I wanted a change in direction, having worked for several years as a qualified nurse in a busy accident and emergency department in Plymouth.

As I flicked through the Nursing Times job adverts, I was drawn to an advert for a local OH adviser in the South West for a manufacturing industry. I had no experience of OH at that time, but felt I had some transferable skills, so I gave it a go. I surprised myself by convincing two interview panels that I should be the person they should choose, and so commenced my OH career working for Bupa occupational health in 1998, based full time on a contractor’s site.

Who were your influences?

At the start of my OH career, I was very much influenced by my manager at Bupa, Christine Barnett, as well as the mentor that I was allocated for my onsite work, Ellen Newnes. Both these individuals supported and guided me in a completely new environment and encouraged me to progress my learning. I also gained an enormous amount of knowledge from our visiting OH physician at the time, Dr John Challenor. I would suggest he was probably influential in guiding the “quality pathway” that my career has since taken – he was always very precise with documentation and processes.

Shortly after I joined Bupa OH, I also came into contact with an OH nurse named Cynthia Atwell, OBE. She influenced me both in training and in the drive and passion for quality OH services to be delivered and demonstrated. This was a lady who I aspired to be like both in clinical knowledge and in passion for quality OH.

What other influences have been important?

My parents are one of the key influences in my life. I was brought up by my father to “be the best that you can be”. That did not always mean that I had to get the highest grades (but as a headteacher he was always pleased when I did), but more importantly, to always give my best in any circumstance. This applied whether I was at school, work or within social groups. I am conscious that this approach has rubbed off on me and feel this is certainly one reason why I have achieved what I have and always strive to deliver a high-quality service to people that I come into contact with.

I am also incredibly grateful to those who, over the years, have seen potential and invested in me, allowing me to develop with various different opportunities. This really began with Bupa OH, which originally took a risk in appointing me as a non-qualified OH adviser, and has continued in recent years, through the significant support of my own employing organisation, and the former NHS Plus OH network. I was fortunate to gain a place on their strategic development programme and this opportunity, I am sure, led to my first secondments at the East of England Quality Strategy facilitators and my appointment as the director of nursing for Syngentis, as well as head of workplace health and wellbeing at the Norfolk & Norwich University NHS Foundation Trust.

What are your priorities and goals in your current role?

I am fortunate to have two different roles and each has different priorities and goals. As far as my role within Syngentis is concerned, my main priority and goal is related to the MoHaWK [Management of Health at Work Knowledge] benchmarking tool. As a manager using this tool before I was involved in the project, I found it extremely beneficial to assist our local audit programme and could see real benefits of demonstrating a quality service, as well as highlighting evidence-based areas where improvement was required for my team.

My goal is to influence others and raise the profile of this system so that it becomes recognised within the OH world as a valuable tool for measuring the quality of OH services delivered. This can be achieved by measuring data and taking appropriate actions allowing services to visualise improvements in the quality being delivered. Alongside this key aim, I hope to continually portray through my role the importance of improving quality, working with evidence-based and best-practice guidance. That way, OH services can truly demonstrate themselves as a clinical speciality.

In my head of service role, my key priorities and goals are no doubt similar to other NHS OH managers – to provide a cost-effective OH service, while supporting staff in improving and maintaining their health and wellbeing to keep them fit and healthy so that high-quality patient care can be provided. This is, of course, a constant challenge with the ever-increasing patient numbers that are coming through our doors.

What motivates you today?

I am the sort of person that is motivated by new challenges and learning. Having recently taken over as head of department in Norwich, I am finding that I am constantly exposed to new experiences and elements of work that keep me motivated. Equally, my role with Syngentis is varied and has led me to a number of new challenges – such as coordinating steering groups, developing audit tools, producing national reports, speaking at national conferences and providing information for journals, such as this one. But every day seems to be a learning opportunity and, as such, sustains my passion for high-quality OH.

What advice would you give to those new to OH or early in their careers?

Go for it! It is a fantastic speciality to work in, with so many varied opportunities. If you really want to follow this pathway, then consider the different ways to get your qualification. We are aware that there is a shortage of quality OH practitioners and we so desperately need more, but, at the same time, practitioners wanting to embark on this pathway for their career can find it difficult to gain access to placements.

Look for positions in organisations that have the ability to give you initial in-house training. This often allows you to gain the basics and experience before going into formal training. This helps with work placements while you are training, too. Link in with organisations such as your local NHS trust to see if there are any potential posts available where you can start on the pathway. They are great learning environments for healthcare sector work and many have external business work too, which can open your perspective to the business models required. Taking a training post or practice nurse post sometimes means a slight drop in salary, but it is well worth it if it is the area that you want to specialise in.

Do not try to go it alone straight away as an independent practitioner. There is too much legislation linked with our roles and it can be very dangerous for you as a professional if you “don’t know what you don’t know”. Once new in post, make sure you link in with both local and national groups including the JISCMail email forum and the relevant OH Facebook groups. Also read the OH journals so that you can gain support and advice from others, as well as information on latest guidance and developments. The OH world is ever changing and these are fantastic resources to make sure you keep up to date and contribute to the delivery of a high-quality OH service.

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