Q&A with Nick Pahl, CEO, Society of Occupational Medicine
Nick Pahl, CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) will be our guest speaker at the branch meeting taking place next Tuesday 19 June. Here, Nick provides an insight into some of the key trends and developments in occupational health, particularly around mental health at work.
What are the key trends in the development of OH that are forecast over the next few years, particularly in the area of mental health?
Occupational health services cover around 50% of the UK’s population. I expect that coverage to increase, to cover more small and medium enterprises. This may be facilitated by new incentives that the Government will create following current policy activity in this area.
Considering the time it takes to train skilled professionals, I would expect this expansion to be facilitated via the use of lower skilled occupational health professionals, such as occupational health technicians. I also hope and expect that that there would be great emphasis on a multidisciplinary occupational health team using nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists and technicians, as well as doctors. This team will ideally link seamlessly with EAP providers and HR services.
Without doubt we will see greater use of IT, both in terms of hand held / smart phone records held by workers to assist with workplace health issues and, integration of occupational health IT activity with other employee support.
In terms of mental health, I unfortunately think that the rapid change in the “nature” of work will accelerate, with a response from workers in stress and anxiety as they perceive less control over their work and sense of purpose. There will also likely be a continued rise in the numbers of the “precariat” and people close to the poverty line who do not have access to workplace health. This is a challenge that I hope the Government responds to.
What are your views in response to the Thriving at Work report?
I welcome the focus on mental health at work. Along with musculoskeletal conditions, mental health is one of the two main issues UK workers face. Disclosure of mental health issues is important, as openness towards mental health issues is a key barrier to positive progress in this area. Of course, we all need to learn to be resilient to deal with life’s challenges and we need to be careful not to medicalise mental health issues if at all possible.
It is great to see the Government responding in full to the report’s recommendations. However, I am concerned that encouraging demand for mental health services is not matched by resources for supply. There also needs to be a focus on good jobs and job design so that problems don’t emerge from structural issues. The role of the manager is critical to ensure good mental health at work – to manage well, and give control to workers. But there is a limit to what managers can do. I’d like to see a greater evidence base for mental health first aid training, which is seeing considerable resource investment in this area.
How are EAPs viewed and what’s the general level of awareness?
EAPs have a key role to play in improving mental health at work. It is not a total panacea but it can really assist with issues that contribute to poor mental health through counselling and advice on debt, legal issues relating to divorce and other “outside-work” issues.
SOM members are aware that EAPs really make a difference providing proactive and direct support for the benefit of employees. I’m sure that EAP services are clear on what advice is given and how that matches company needs but that needs to be explicit, in particular for companies that have both an OH and EAP offer. I know occupational health professionals would welcome greater collaboration between EAPs and OH – and for there to be a greater joined-up strategic approach to improving mental health.
What do you see as the key strengths of an EAP service?
A key strength of an EAP service versus an OH service is that EAPs can be available very swiftly (such as via phone). They also work hand-in-hand with OH to help create an environment where employees feel supported. It’s worth reminding ourselves that each workplace is different and an exercise of health surveillance is a key first step to assess what services a workplace needs is important.
Finally, I would expect EAPs and OH to work together further in the future and I hope the discussions between EAP providers and SOM are fruitful, to facilitate this further.
You can hear more from Nick Pahl at the branch meeting next Tuesday 19 June at 11.00 at the Linnean Society on Piccadilly. Members are encouraged to bring OH colleagues as guests for this part of the meeting. To confirm your attendance, email firstname.lastname@example.org.