Tricia O’Neill, OH and wellbeing manager at Skanska UK, looks back on a career that has included leading roles in organisations with innovative wellbeing approaches, and shares the lessons she has learned.
How did you get into OH?
I never had a burning ambition to get into OH, even though I had been one of my local NHS hospital’s first cases (in around 1980) and they had made a bit of a pig’s ear of managing it. That is another story which I will mention later on because of the knowledge that I gained from the experience. With hindsight, however, moving into OH was a smart move.
I started my career in 1989, working part time for Procter & Gamble (P&G) in Egham as its first OH professional. The hours and location were perfect, as I was then a mum to a toddler. I had previously worked as a practice nurse in a large GP surgery, which required me to have broad clinical skills and a good working knowledge of healthy lifestyle choices. This was a good match for the role at P&G, as it wanted to introduce a global health lifestyle programme.
Who influenced you in your early days?
It was not so much who influenced my career but the NHS experience that I mentioned above, when I returned to work after a year’s absence with a significant temporary disability. It was not a good experience as, back then, there was a lot of bias regarding disability, which in today’s world would not be tolerated and would breach the Equality Act 2010.
To give some context, I had a sub-clavian thrombosis that required a rib re-section to release it, but I ended up with some nerve complications that resulted in me having a paralysed arm for nearly 18 months. I now have a lot of empathy for individuals who have strokes; it is very humbling to lose your independence.
- Feb 2015 to date: UK occupational health and wellbeing manager, Skanska UK
- Oct 2012-Jan 2015: Head of occupational health, wellbeing and safety direct, Sainsbury’s plc
- Feb 2002-June 2012: Group head of occupational health, Centrica plc
- Oct 1989-Feb 2002: EMEA health systems manager, Procter & Gamble
- 1987-Oct 1989: Practice nurse, large GP surgery
- 1980-1987: Various NHS roles in East Berkshire hospitals
- 2014: MBA (Dist) Henley Business School, University of Reading
- 1999: MSc Occupational Health, University of Surrey
- 1992: Diploma in Occupational Health, West London Institute
- 1980: RGN, East Berkshire School of Nursing
- 2013: Chair of Thames Valley OH Group
- IOSH OHSAS 18001 lead auditor
- Various external presentations to non-government organisations and
other professional groups including:
■ June 2014: “What’s shaping workplace wellbeing?” The Workplace
Wellbeing Movement, Manchester
■ Oct 2014: “Change the card, change the deck, change the game:
approaches to case management”. Trent Occupational Medicine Group
- May 2015: Participant in NMC revalidation pilot
- 2015: Faculty of Occupational Health Nursing (FOHN) Consulting Group
- June 2012: “Developing your career path”. Occupational Health
This experience taught me that there is a lot of fear among managers (even supposedly caring NHS health professionals) in supporting employees back to work when they are clearly not 100% fit. This is still true today, but the worry is more about liability concerning “if something goes wrong”. I think we need to focus on an individual’s capability rather than a clinical “label”, which is where both the manager and OH adviser seemed to get stuck.
What other influences have been important?
When I started working for my first professional qualification, the OH certificate was on its last legs and the new shiny diploma in OH was being introduced. The part time day release worked well as it allowed me to consolidate what I was learning each week.
There was a bit of a gap after that before I started my MSc in Occupational Health at the University of Surrey in 1999. However, little did I know that this was not aligned to the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s (NMC’s) new Specialist Practitioner award, and I had missed the window to complete the extra part. But it has never held me back in my career, as the private-sector organisations that I worked for wanted someone to lead the function or service, so were more concerned about what I could do, rather than whether or not I had the “correct” qualification.
My role in Centrica was probably the one that provided me with the greatest development opportunities. During my time there, not only did I lead a large OH team of about 38 professionals, but I deployed a central case management service with triage professionals. This happened in 2003, so it was quite leading edge at the time.
As I moved up the ladder, I worked with non-government organisations like Business in the Community (BITC) on their musculoskeletal toolkit and public reporting guidelines (both still available on the BITC website), as well as central government as part of the Health at Work Network launch. These experiences gave me access to a wide network of experts and professionals who helped me not only develop professionally, but also offered me the platform to contribute to a wider audience.
Networks are absolutely key for any OH professional to be able to seek out best practice or emerging ideas, so I rely on both old and new ones to continually move my career forward.
With two professional qualifications and a couple of decades of OH practice behind me you might think I had the “been there, got the t-shirt”, but I was undertaking more strategic activities and felt that I needed a different skill and knowledge set, so I invested in two pieces of development.
First, I enrolled on a three-year flexible MBA at Henley Business School, and I really wish I had done this earlier in my career. This degree helped me grow more than any other qualification and I would highly recommend it to aspiring senior OH managers. The diversity of businesses and colleagues on the course certainly takes you out of the comfortable OH world.
However, in the middle of my MBA I was made redundant (well, actually I asked to leave – the time was right to go) and I deliberated over whether or not I should remain in OH or look for a different career.
My second investment was in four one-hour career coaching sessions, which enabled me to take stock and consider what to do next in a more measured way, instead of making poor choices. I remained in OH, but recognised that I needed to make my voice louder in the OH world, so started to look for opportunities where I could have a say.
Today, I am chair of the Thames Valley OH Nurses group (TVOHN), a member of the new Faculty of OH Nursing (FOHN) development consulting group and I have just submitted my revalidation portfolio as part of the NMC pilot – just a small voice, but a voice nonetheless.
What are the goals and priorities in your current role?
I currently lead the OH team at Skanska UK. It is still “early doors” for me, having stepped into the role in February this year. I am still getting to know the organisation, stakeholders and team capability, but I am well on the way with our OH and wellbeing strategy and roadmap.
From a professional point of view, as I have been part of the NMC pilot regarding revalidation, I want my team and members of the TVOHN group to be ahead of the game and to be prepared. Therefore, the next plan is to share my portfolio, make time in meetings to capture learnings, discuss and debate and to offer a confirmer or registrant route.
As a new member of FOHN, I also want to actively participate and contribute to the direction, content and “look and feel” of the new faculty. It is a great opportunity to shape the next generation of OH professionals.
What motivates you today?
A great job that allows me to use my knowledge and expertise, an organisation that is willing to listen to a good business case, a manager who recognises my skillset and does not micromanage and a good network of people who can support, advise and inspire me to create a great place to work for my team and others.
What advice would you offer those new to OH or early in their careers?
Continually look for opportunities to develop new skills, knowledge or networks – it may take you in a direction that you never expected. Do not just think about technical experience, ask if you can get involved in a working group or project to add a dimension and new cross functional contacts. Look externally at what is happening in non-government organisations, charities or central government. Do not be constrained by your professional qualification – that is just your foundation to grow.
Update your CV each year – you will forget what you have achieved or experienced if you leave it until you want to change roles. Never create a “shopping list” of achievements, instead help the recruiter understand what you have learnt from your experience and what you can bring to the new role.
Make sure your OH voice is heard – there are too few of us. That means participating in any consultation, joining a local or UK OH network, and considering allied professional groups that will enhance your workplace experience, for example occupational hygiene, safety or ergonomics. But also share your expertise and knowledge with them.