Occupational health must have a strategic leadership role and remain at the forefront of business operations as the nation learns to live with Covid-19, one of the country’s top workplace health experts has urged.
Professor Dame Carol Black, who has advised the government on the relationship between work and health and recently led an independent review on drugs, said the pandemic had pushed the measurement and support of workers’ health up the agenda, and that this needed to stay at the front of employers’ and policy makers’ minds as we move forward.
She told delegates at last week’s Health and Wellbeing at Work show in Birmingham that “Covid really brought to the forefront the need for, and the value of, high-quality occupational health services”, and that employers needed to “keep that up”.
However, she said she wanted to see OH take on more of a strategic leadership role than it had been carrying out.
“I would like to see occupational health much more involved in strategic decision-making nationally and locally,” said Prof Black. “And I would like OH to be heard at the boardroom table. [It should be] there to bring a breadth of knowledge and to support a healthy and high-performing workforce.”
Future occupational health strategy
She said that leadership is now “more important than ever”, and that leaders in the OH profession needed to be skilled in dealing with uncertainty.
“What is important going forward is not that we are the ‘learned’ – that we do things like we’ve always done – because that world doesn’t exist [anymore],” she said.
“Can we all be learners? Can we all be agile, adaptable and resilient?”
She praised some of the innovation that the OH profession had displayed during the pandemic. For example, a group of NHS trusts in the north east of England have come together to pool resources and develop an OH hub. The hub includes OH resources from South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, District Hospital, South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, North Tees and Hartlepool Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust.
Prof Black also praised NHS England and Improvement for developing a new health and wellbeing framework for employees that had OH at its heart.
“In the original framework we left out OH believe it or not, but in this framework professional health and wellbeing support is very much in there,” she said.
“There is a lot of movement at the moment to grow occupational health in the NHS and a roadmap is being developed to give it a strategic and organisational role.”
Prof Black added that the narrative focusing on things getting “back to normal” was not useful for people who are dealing with grief, or who have been severely affected by the pandemic. She said it was important for organisations to prioritise psychological safety and reiterate to staff that it is “okay not to be okay”.