Year of the Nurse and Midwife: Working with workers

“Working with workers” is the role of the occupational health nurses; helping the people who make up our workforces keep well – both mentally and physically.

Jane O’Kane, a nurse of 44 years, has been looking after the 3000-plus Hawke's Bay District Health Board team for the past 20 years, albeit with a year off in the middle to investigate Europe with her husband.

Born and bred in Hastings, Jane trained in Palmerston North in 1976, returning to her home town as a registered general and obstetrics nurse. A six-month stint picking apples refreshed her post-study, and she headed into the wards of what was then Hastings Hospital.

Over the next near 25 years, Jane focused on hospital nursing, public and private, and started on a not-inconsiderable study programme – starting with her Bachelor of Nursing.

The move into occupational health nursing did not stop the study, with post-grad papers in occupational health and safety and a diversion away from health study to take some management papers, resulting in Jane attaining her Masters. But her “most important piece of paper” is her post-grad certificate in clinical rehabilitation. “The information I learned while completing that study has been invaluable.”

Jane calls occupational health the “hidden discipline” of nursing. “Given its highly confidential nature, we fly under the radar most of the time, and certainly cannot share the stories of what we do. Only those who we help understand what we do.”

And of course, with a team of thousands to look after, they are not exactly touting for business.

Every day is different and the skills required diverse. “You need common sense, empathy, compassion, an open mind, and the ability to switch off easily outside of work. I think you also need some life experience behind you, in order to be able to fully connect, understand and empathise with the people you are helping,” says Jane.

The service is about the whole person, assisting with rehabilitation after accidents or planned surgery, mental health, vaccinations, pre-employment screening, supporting staff members through difficult home situations, brokering discussions on health issues between staff and their managers . . . “It really does cover the whole person – it is a very interesting and fulfilling branch of nursing.”

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