Jeremy Smith’s journey in OH has encompassed: the role of president of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners (UK) (AOHNP); experience as an in-house and independent practitioner; coaching; training in neurolinguistic programming; and undertaking six months in Iraq with the Territorial Army (TA). Here, he explains what attracted him to this career path and what keeps him in the profession.
How did you get into OH?
Working in occupational health is something that I always wanted to do. Looking back, I can only attribute this to an incident that occurred 30 years ago when I had just started my nursing career at the age of 18 at Charing Cross Hospital School of Nursing.
We were in our six-week introductory block and our nurse tutor, Krisha Soutar, asked the set what we thought our roles as nurses would be. She asked if we thought that our role was to look after patients in hospital and the majority of us raised our hands. She then told us that our role was actually to stop people having to go to hospital in the first place. Although I did not realise it at the time, I can only believe that this sowed the seed that was to become my career in OH years later as it is one of the areas of nursing where you are able to do just that.
When I first qualified, I made enquiries at West London College about undertaking an OH certificate course and was told that I did not have enough experience. The course tutor advised me to go to A&E to get some treatment experience so, after completing six months as a primary nurse in respiratory medicine and six months as a staff nurse in trauma and orthopaedics, I started in A&E as a staff nurse.
I stayed in A&E for seven years, eventually leaving as a charge nurse in 1996. I left just as it came to the time when I had to decide whether or not to move my career into management within the NHS or change specialty, so I decided to make the move into OH. It was not easy to make the move as, at that time, you could not get a job in OH unless you held an OH qualification and you could not get a place to do an OH qualification unless you were already working in OH.
So, prior to leaving A&E, I spent my days off working as an agency nurse in OH to gain some experience and got a place to do a NEBOSH certificate as I thought that the health and safety knowledge could come in useful in the future, which it has. I managed to get a job as an OH adviser in the NHS. I wanted to stay in an industry that I understood, while learning a new role, and it gave me a good grounding in OH. It was a very forward-thinking nurse-led department and it really taught me a lot. After two years it was time to move on though and I took a role as a peripatetic OH adviser with a national OH provider.
Who influenced you in your early days?
In the early stages of my career I was influenced by OH manager Nessie Brooks. She and I shared a phone and fax machine while working in the NHS and she later became my mentor when I undertook the OH degree programme at the Royal College of Nursing Institute – facilitated by the University of Manchester. I met June Dolby when I was working for my first OH provider, who was the manager for the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency contract and she also made a big impression on me.
The other big influence early on was OH adviser and former president of the AOHNP, Gail Cotton. I met Gail when I attended my first AOHNP symposium held at Regent’s College in 2000, while she was president. I had just gone along for a professional update and I left having become the regional director for the South-East. Gail could be very persuasive.
What other influences have been important?
I have always tried to further my professional experience in everything that I have done. I joined the TA in 2002, as part of what was then B Squadron 4 General Support Medical Regiment. I was deployed to Iraq for six months in 2003.
- 2011-present: Independent occupational health consultant and business health coach, Occupational Health Services (South East) Ltd
- 2010-2011: OH clinical delivery manager Atos Healthcare; area
manager, Atos Healthcare
- 2009-2010: (Acting) area manager, Atos Healthcare
- 2007-2009: Regional manager, London, Atos Healthcare
- 2002-2007: OH manager, Kent County Council
- 2008-2010: President, AOHNP (UK)
- 2003-2005: Vice-president, AOHNP (UK)
- 2000-2003: Regional director, South-East, AOHNP (UK)
I spent a total of 10 years in the TA, finishing my time at the Reserves Training Centre, part of 4 Brigade in Aldershot where I had been employed in the roles of Cadre Officer and Officer Commanding Specialist Training Wing. This opened my eyes to other forms of management styles.
In terms of other personal development, I completed a coaching qualification in 2007 as I could see an application for using a coaching approach in the OH consultation and I have gone on to train as a neurolinguistic programming practitioner as I saw the benefits that this would bring to my role in OH. I have also trained as a mediator with a local mediation charity and I volunteer with my local Red Cross branch as an event first-aider and first-aid trainer.
What are the goals and priorities in your current role?
Having spent the majority of my career working
for other organisations as an OH nurse, senior OH adviser and OH manager, I made the decision in 2011 to become an independent OH practitioner and I started my own company, Occupational Health Services (South East) Limited. Now self-employed, I
have rediscovered my love of patient contact and the buzz you get when you are able to add real value to people’s lives.
I enjoyed my time as a manager working with large organisations but, over the years, had become more distant from the work that I really enjoyed. My goal is to provide the best evidence-based OH services that I can to my customers and clients and my priority is to raise the profile of OH in the areas I work in, as I find that even after nearly 20 years in OH, the general population still largely has no idea what it is all about.
What motivates you today?
I like to feel that I have made a difference to those people who are referred to me and the businesses that refer their employees to me. We do not often get feedback from our clients but I have been fortunate enough to have received calls from some clients, thanking me for my help in getting them back to work and from the employers I deal with for the advice that I provide. Knowing that I have done a job well always motivates me.
Another motivation is participating in the wider world of OH through the AOHNP and being able to contribute to the discussions that we have in the wider OH community. I am a practice teacher for the OH degree programme at London South Bank University and I enjoy sharing my experience with the students that I support through their degree programmes. I also enjoy participating in events that course leader Anne Harriss arranges to support the practice teachers.
This is a very exciting time for the OH community with the formation of the Faculty of OH Nursing, the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s pilot revalidation project and the involvement that OH nurses have had in that, all of which helps to raise awareness of OH as a specialty and promotes the work that we do in the health of the UK’s working population.
What advice would you offer those new to OH or early in their careers?
Get as much experience in every industry that you can. One of the things I love most about working in OH is the variety. One minute I can be having a consultation with a primary school teacher about their long-term depression and the next I am undertaking a level 3 hand arm vibration assessment on a forestry worker.
Having an understanding of how health impacts on work, and work on health, is vital to what we do. I would also suggest you get the basics under your belt first.
In my first OH job, I spent a lot of time learning the principles of health surveillance and the importance of doing it correctly. I needed to refresh some of those skills when I became an independent practitioner as they had become a little rusty during the time I had spent in management. But because of my very good grounding early on, they came back very quickly.
Keeping an open mind is important. I am still sometimes surprised by what my patients tell me during a consultation. And finally, but by no means least importantly, do join the AOHNP, as it is the only organisation that truly represents the interests of what we do as OH practitioners.