Occupational health promoted by drama students at Aberdeen College

Many occupational health (OH) teams are embracing health promotion activities, but Aberdeen College broke new ground this year when it involved drama students at the college in getting the wellbeing message across to staff and students at a recent health fair.

The college is the largest further education establishment in Scotland, with a current roll of 5,133 full-time and 26,436 part-time students on a number of sites.

OH support is provided by Alpha Health Services and includes three on-site OH nurses and a site-based counselling service.

As part of its health promotion role, the OH team organises an annual health fair for students and staff, where a variety of organisations are invited to promote overall health and wellbeing and to raise awareness of services and the help available in Aberdeen. Representatives from organisations including Alcohol and Drug Awareness, the See Me Campaign, Anti-Smoking, Diabetes UK and the Genito-urinary (GU) Clinic attend the fair to answer questions, perform health checks and provide information and advice.

The OH service also has its own stand, providing advice and information on a wide range of health-related issues and offering staff and students health checks.

While organising the fair, the OH team decided to enlist the help of drama students at the college, to provide an innovative way of grabbing the attention of both staff and students to help them relate to the health messages being promoted.

Getting in on the act

A number of research studies show the value of drama in health promotion, which has mainly been used in the community, but none showed any previous evaluation of any drama used by OH in the working environment. Indeed, in their research, Health-related and economic benefits of workplace health promotion and prevention, Julia Kreis and Wolfgang Bödeker found that OH professionals mainly used basic clinical approaches to health promotion in the workplace.

The Aberdeen College OH ser­vice identified the students of the college as additional clients for the OH service, as they represent the next generation of the workforce. The OH team hopes to use health and education to create a long-lasting impression that will lead to a healthier workforce in the future.

Any method of promoting health needs to include the basic principles of communication, motivation and confidence. Otherwise the message will be lost.

The Aberdeen College OH team hoped to come up with an innovative form of communication by discussing ideas for the health fair with the HNC drama and performing arts students. The students were keen to get involved and the work with the OH team was incorporated into their coursework.

Following the discussions with the OH team, the students chose the health-related topics they wanted to focus on and created short scenes, which varied from the importance of giving blood, to the knock-on effects that an addiction or illness can have.

Each scene lasted about 10 minutes and they were performed on a Rostra box, giving the students a stage of only one square metre.

The actors performed each of the eight scenes in the student common area, and distributed information, free condoms and leaflets in relation to the topics being performed. (See box right.)

Positive feedback

Staff and students gave informal evaluation on the performances and said they were absorbed and forced to stop and think. They felt the scenes helped them to think about identifying healthier alternatives for their future.

Positive feedback was also received about how effective the communication of information was in undertaking such an innovative health promotion activity.

Although it is naïve to expect people to give up life-long habits because they have seen the dangers and consequences, the dramas acted out by the students served to highlight these factors and the OH team has been able to offer more in-depth advice and help as a follow-up service.

On reflection, this was an economically efficient method of achieving the overall aim, and the Aberdeen College OH team has decided that due to the effectiveness of this activity it will continue to use the drama students in its annual health fair.

Setting the scene: one-act wonders

  • Life Line began with two friends, one stating how she had just given blood and the other stating how she “hates the sight of blood” and thought giving blood would leave her “too sore”. The scene shifted to a hospital blood transfusion service, where a nurse reassured the girl that giving blood was simple and important.

  • Another piece showed a diligent student helping a heavy drinking ‘party animal’ who was getting poor grades and running up debts. She helps her friend see the error in her ways.

  • The Circle of Life showed two generations, a father and son, addicted to drugs, while another son turns his back on drugs and chooses instead to pursue his dreams.

  • She’s What? involved four actors intertwined so that throughout the scenario two were facing the audience and two had their backs to it. A young girl is in love with a boy but finds she is pregnant the performance ends with her standing alone.

  • Cut Short illustrated the devastation that can be caused alcohol and in particular by drink driving. A girl’s boyfriend is killed by a drink driver, who turns out to be her best friend. It showed the emotions of the bereaved and the driver. Aberdeen College is very proactive in raising awareness of safe driving, targeting drivers of all ages, and is involved in the annual safe driving campaign.

  • What Children See demonstrated the disastrous effects of domestic violence. Throughout the performance a husband uses both physical and mental violence towards his wife and young child until the wife leaves him and seeks professional help and support.

  • My Mum was about a mother in the depths of alcoholism with a teenage daughter trying to support her. The mother is in denial, both of drinking to excess and addiction, and refuses professional assistance and advice. Eventually, with the support of her daughter, she seeks professional help and assistance.

  • As Time Goes By involved two young girls who were childhood friends and have been experimenting with drugs since leaving school. One turns her back on drugs and begins a college course while the other becomes an addict. The scene ends with one dressed in a suit walking past her friend begging for money in the street. The scenes covered the key health and social topics of drugs, alcohol and mental illness that affect not only young people, but also many adults.

Occupational health and health promotion

Since the 19th century, it has been recognised that taking action in the early asymptomatic stages of disease is vital in the prevention of the development of major health problems. Today, there is a growing emphasis on prevention and health promotion.

There are two main accepted definitions of health promotion. The first is the one coined by the World Health Organization based on the definition provided in the Ottawa Charter as “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health”. The second, and the one more widely accepted in the UK among health professionals, is Tones’ definition that “health promotion incorporates all measures deliberately designed to promote health and handle disease”.

Therefore, health promotion is about promoting healthy living, including diet and exercise, and preventing the common causes of early or untimely death, such as heart disease, cancer, drug and alcohol abuse and other life-threatening diseases. This can be achieved only through initiatives at an international and national level, as well as at a local level where health promotion starts in schools and colleges and continues in the workplace.

For the principles of health promotion to be achieved, the promotion of health and wellbeing should be one of the main responsibilities of all health professionals.

OH supports this strategy as the service is not solely limited to preventing and controlling disease, but is also concerned with achieving overall health and wellbeing of employees working within an organisation.

The research undertaken by Kreis and Bödeker supports the effectiveness of OH programmes with regard to the reduction of health risks. Employees are the main focus for OH, but health professionals have an obligation to address additional clients, which may include trade unions, society at large or even the government.

Kat Thomson is principal occupational health nurse adviser at Aberdeen College


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