Occupational health is best placed to lead the workplace wellbeing agenda

Richard Heron cropped

Dr Richard Heron is one of the most forward-thinking experts when it comes to occupational health (OH), believing that occupational health professionals are best placed to lead the workplace wellbeing agenda.

For the past 15 years, as vice-president health and chief medical officer, Heron led the global health agenda for multinational energy corporation BP. Before that, he held corporate HSE and risk management leadership roles with AstraZeneca.

Not only this but he’s also a past president of UK faculty and society of occupational medicine, a fellow of the RCP, American college of occupational and environmental medicine and the faculty of medical leadership and management. He also currently serves on the National Health Service of England expert advisory group, alongside Dame Carol Black.

He now runs his own health consultancy, and has advisory roles that include the World Economic Forum and Rand Europe.

We spoke to him about his vision for the OH profession ahead of his appearance as a key speaker at our sister event, The Watercooler on 25-26 April, where he will be talking about defining and measuring wellbeing for healthy employees and organisations.

We’ve written articles and started conversations on LinkedIn about occupational health which have become quite heated because there’s such differing opinions on how the function should move forward. For instance, some commentators believe that occupational health has missed its opportunity to shine, while others say that OH professionals are best placed to lead the wellbeing agenda because of their clinical expertise. Where do you stand on these issues?

I am an inherent optimist, tainted with a smidgen of realism. And I’ve always encouraged my health teams to challenge the status quo to meet ever-changing business needs. I think part of our problem as occupational health professionals lies in a heritage based in prevention of industrial diseases. While this remains a core area, the nature of work is rapidly changing, and we need to be ahead of the changes.

We are now in the fourth industrial revolution, and every previous one has seen a change in the nature of the effects of work on health. In the past, the hazards of work were mostly physical. Now that we are living in a global ideas economy, mental health is the primary concern, and exceeding risks to what is a finite capacity for work. We are in a world where some are burnt out through overwork, and very capable others are unable to access work.

Our challenge is to demonstrate to the leaders of organisations the positive impact on their business effectiveness that investments that control (mental) health risks bring, and the advantages of hiring people for their capabilities especially those with disabilities, and other health conditions which can be well-managed and supported by OH teams.

We have the opportunity, this time, to encourage positive investment in better worker health, and the exploitation of new technologies concurrently. I think this is a place where occupational health specialists are ideally placed to advise.

Why do you think occupational health specialists are best placed to lead the workplace wellbeing agenda?

Because we have always advocated for better health at work; we have always had to speak truth to power, particularly when advocating for the under-served.  We are privileged to have been given an accountability to shine a light on poor practice – speak up, challenge it and make a difference. And as a profession we often feel more confident doing so than other employees because it’s such a core part of our purpose – for many of us it’s the “why” we decided to do the work we do.

Are there any key skills you think OH needs to develop for this new-fangled future?

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We need to be better strategic advisors on health, and realistically we  need to influence within two degrees of separation from the chief executive. Without that it’s very hard to gain traction, our influence at best diluted, at worst almost invisible. I don’t think the challenge is improving our technical OH skills, our challenge is to become super communicators, comfortable operating at executive level.

Anything that OH, or indeed wellbeing professionals, need to be wary of doing?

We need to hold back from selling health too quickly before we fully understand the customer needs. It’s not surprising that this can happen, because we are passionate about our product – better health and wellbeing. I often see OH professionals making a wellbeing sales pitch before understanding the most pressing business problems.  I see this as a mistake. The most successful interventions I’ve seen come to fruition have been when I’ve met with a senior leader and I’ve just asked, “what’s on your mind, what are your current business challenges and priorities, what’s keeping you awake at night?”. Only when I’ve understood the answers do I earn the right to suggest a health or wellbeing proposal and it will be focused on improving the business outcomes of the moment; investing in my proposal becomes a priority.

What type of ‘harms’ are you potentially talking about in this industrial revolution?

The potential harms of many of today’s workplaces are to those that affect overall wellbeing, and potentially through any of their drivers – not just physical impacts of work on our physical health, but the impacts from poor relationships at work, issues of insecurity (financial or job), the working environment or a mismatch between our sense of purpose and that of our employer.  As occupational health professionals we are well-placed to recommend interventions that can make a positive impact on both worker and the organisation.

So, what you’re saying here is that occupational health specialists have the potential to do massive good and have a very purpose-led job, which is a big theme in workplace wellbeing?

Exactly. We can help create workplaces where employees feel valued, where they see alignment between what they do and what the organisation seeks to achieve. Forward-thinking businesses strive for this shared sense of purpose. Recent research  suggests this is particularly important in the public sector, where shared purpose is a massive lever for people choosing a job and wanting to stay in it. Unfortunately, shared purpose alone is not enough, and if it’s eroded or when other drivers of wellbeing – financial insecurity, poor working environments – are not addressed, attrition of committed staff is a consequence.

Tapping into your natural optimism, what would be your utopian vision for occupational health in organisations?

I’d like to see a bigger role for occupational health leaders in the building of empathetic leadership at work. Authentic leadership demands empathy and that leaders notice people, listen to and respond to their concerns. This should go hand in hand with authentic ‘followership’, which means showing up, committing to tasks and demonstrating team behaviours. I think sometimes we forget that it’s a two-way street  where occupational health has a role to ensure traffic flows smoothly both ways.

How would you sum it up in a few lines?

At its simplest, it’s about creating organisations where we genuinely care about each other. If your boss really cares about you and is flexible when you need it, you’ll tend to pull out the stops because you respect and care about them too. Customers also notice employees who demonstrate care  in their work, and businesses fare better.

What’s your call to action to our readership, who may have different roles but are all interested in driving the wellbeing agenda forward?

I believe OH professionals who develop their leadership skills can make a much greater impact on workplace health and wellbeing. It’s not for everyone and there is also great value in excellent one-to-one interactions that arise in case-management and fitness for work assessments. Nonetheless,  I believe we need more OH professionals stepping up into executive leadership roles that create a pull for resources to support better access to excellent occupational health provision and better access to work.

Attend our free, sister event The Watercooler

Richard Heron will be speaking at The Watercooler about defining and measuring wellbeing for healthy employees and organisations; the event is a great networking opportunity where topics like this – whether OH is best placed to lead the workplace wellbeing agenda – will be discussed in sessions and informally amongst delegates.

The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work.

Taking place at Excel London on 25th & 26th April 2023, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here.

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