Leadership in occupational health over the first wave
As the pandemic hit, time seemed to alter, and intensity increased. The pace of “leadership responsiveness” required multiplied. Suddenly, we needed to be “just in time” rather than the days or weeks that medical societies usually take.
The office team “disappeared” in March to work (very effectively) at home. A new, wider, team emerged beyond the Society of Occupational Medicine, of professionals from different disciplines and organisations. Subgroups focused on PPE and mental health at work were formed. New communication channels opened with daily briefs, weekly webinars, and front-line networks.
Expert leadership was important. Occupational Medicine experts quickly called out the Government’s position on PPE standards and supply. But we knew little about Covid, for example in terms of transmission mechanisms. We quickly hosted a webinar with an Italian occupational medicine expert, ahead of the UK in terms of Covid impact, as to what they were experiencing in hospitals.
It was inspiring to see leadership elsewhere. As Covid-19 deaths tragically increased, a former Windsor Leadership Trust Alumni, and a former President of the SOM, David McLoughlin kept me in touch as to the military’s amazing work setting up the Nightingale Hospitals. Many occupational health professionals working in the private sector volunteered to work in the NHS. NHS England put in place procurement to support NHS occupational health teams.
In April, we decided to move to proactive challenge and focus on the occupational health risk of health care professionals. Dr Will Ponsonby, the SOM President, publicly rejected the Government’s rhetoric of professionals on a front line “war”. Instead we campaigned with the BMA and others “that no health care worker should die of Covid transmission” if proper controls are in place. Amnesty International subsequently produced a report highlighting this issue[i].
In the middle of this, a refreshing culture emerged ofleadership that was still about rationality, objective truth and weighing up the evidence but also about warmth, collaboration and energy (although energy was hard to maintain when it was all online).
With the end of the initial lock down in sight, we focused on the risk of return to work. A collaborative, leadership style continued with new partnerships emerging. We achieved in weeks what would previously have taken months with organizations such as Mind, CIPD, BITC and Acas to offer advice and toolkits. And, even with the frenetic pace of activity, we found out a bit more about each other and our solaces (in my case re watching a lengthy BBC Programme about a shepherd taking Herdwick sheep off a hill).
Despite our new confidence of working with trusted partners, with the launch of effective new advice and “toolkits”, we struggled to influence. Government was in an emergency “command / control mode”. Responses from the “Centre” on key issues were delayed or not forthcoming. It felt a bit Vicky Pollard … “yeah but no but yeah”.
Some things we did not get right. I regret not reacting to data that emerged showing that some occupational health groups such as minicab drivers and security guards were more at risk of dying from Covid. We must highlight the inequality that Covid is creating and avoid a “white collar” prejudice at the expense of those working in low income public facing roles or factories such as in meat packing who have a higher Covid risk.
In July we launched a new report on the mental health of nurse and midwives, but like many by the end of July, I needed a break. Zoom calls blurred into one and it was hard differentiating online with real life. I needed to practice what I preach in our “mental health in the workplace toolkit” and take a break.
In September, we started again with the confidence that we have a social purpose to make a difference to workplaces. We were profiled in New Scientist magazine. However, pressures quickly started again though in terms of questions on testing and how any vaccine would be delivered.
Questions remain. In terms of risk, one risk of Covid transmission can be reduced in place of another in terms of the health risks of unemployment. We are hosting, with partners, a summit on this on 10thNovember (at https://www.som.org.uk/civicrm/event/info%3Fid%3D313%26reset%3D1)
It is important to celebrate success (with an awards process for innovators who have come up with tools such as the “Covid Age” next month). We need to support current and future leaders through mentoring and peer support. We should be offering leadership training to those occupational health individuals who have the potential to become our leaders of the future. We are actively looking for funding for this.
We now need to pace ourselves for the winter…