If you are thinking about becoming an independent OH consultant, proceed with caution. Think about your preferences and capabilities. Analyse your experience, qualifications and working style. Essentially, you need to carry out a SWOT analysis on yourself and your career history. Look at yourself as a business proposition – and don’t be over-ambitious.
Consider the specific field you want to go into. You might be suited to policy work, or prefer to ‘cherry pick’ certain components of what OH delivers. But if you already specialise in a particular area or have a strong interest you would like to develop, this could be a good option.
You must also ensure you have everything in place before you start. Do you have the right qualifications, for instance, or do they need updating? Do you have mentors who can help you? And are you a member of relevant professional associations?
Think about marketing as well. Who should you target, and how will you do it? Marketing is not everyone’s cup of tea, and you need to bear this in mind.
Another key consideration is the level of income you are looking for. Be realistic about how much you need to earn, and how achievable this is. You need to have both short- and long-term goals in place. Plan carefully, and think objectively: you need a strategy.
Taking it step-by-step is sensible. If you are able to continue with your existing job on a part-time basis, you will have a secure income and a potential source of future contracts. And you will be less likely to chase after every piece of work on offer because you are so terrified of not getting enough.
Easing yourself into this role also means you can change your mind if it’s not for you. Often, OH practitioners going into independent consultancy work don’t realise how lonely it can be. You can lose a sense of structure to your working life if you are self-employed. It’s essential to create your own structure when you leave the constraints of an organisation. Again, not everybody manages to do this, and you may find that you enjoy working for an employer more than you realised.
Making this transition also means honing your assertiveness skills. Avoid trying to please everyone all the time when you start out – you can’t be all things to all people. There is a tendency for practitioners to say they can do everything, then find they are not actually able to deliver. The best way to proceed is through personal recommendations – another reason why part-time working in the initial stages is a good idea.
Effective organisational skills are essential. You need to put business systems in place, and you must be meticulous and thorough about them. For instance, keep all your petrol receipts so you can claim them back against tax. And you will need start-up money to buy the equipment you need. If you are going into surveillance work, for example, you will need to invest in expensive equipment, even if you buy it second-hand.
Networking is another vital skill. If you aren’t a natural networker, you will have to learn the best way to do it. You won’t have a team or a peer group laid on, as you do when you work for an organisation. You will need to establish a different network.
Talk to different providers, of all sizes. This will give you an overview of the market, and some may be able to provide you with work. Network within professional associations such as the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners and the Royal College of Nursing. Both have useful information on their websites about making the transition to independent consultancy.
Resilience is part of the skills set of any consultant. You might find that you come up against ‘protectionism’, and that other consultants won’t want to tell you how much they earn, for example. You have to be totally robust and independent: the buck stops with you.
Be realistic about whether it’s working out. For example, some people aren’t good at managing their time. If you are getting home at 5pm after a day’s consulting and only then starting to deal with your e-mails, you need to do some serious rethinking. Time management relates to daily time, how you manage your routine work, and also to the issue of planning ahead. You need to factor in not only the time spent on-site with clients, but also the time spent preparing for your visit, and that spent writing up reports afterwards.
It might be tempting to look at successful independent practitioners and think ‘I want some of that’. But a great deal of work goes into that success.
Before you do anything, investigate the possibilities, assess yourself, and be realistic about what going it alone will entail.
Gail Cotton, head of OH at Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service