2002 Salary Survey Results

Midcareer quest: Where do I go from here?

Reach for new skills, seek promotions

Add up your years of experience in health care, factor in your specialty of occupational health, and consider your commitment to your job. Your payoff: a modest annual raise of 1% to 3%.

Most employee health professionals have reached a plateau in their careers, with salaries in the range of $40,000 to $60,000, according to the exclusive Hospital Employee Health survey. (For detailed salary breakdowns, see chart below.)

Half of the respondents earned raises of just 1% to 3%, while another 23% earned 4% to 6% more last year. To go beyond incremental salary adjustments, employee health professionals will need to move to a new hospital or take on new responsibilities in their organization, employee health experts say.

"They’re not going to compensate you just because you say, I should get more,’" says Deborah V. DiBenedetto, MBA, RN, COHN-S/CM, ABDA, a Yonkers, NY-based occupational health consultant and president of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses. "You have to demonstrate why you should get more."

Employee health professionals have reached a stable, mature period in their careers. Some 44% of the 308 respondents to the survey were older than 50. Two-thirds had worked in health care for 22 years or more. About half had worked in employee health for 10 or more years.

That partly reflects job satisfaction among employee health nurses and the value of experience for those who take on the role, notes MaryAnn Gruden, MSN, CRNP, NP-C, COHN-S/CM, an employee health nurse practitioner at Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Pittsburgh. She also is executive president of the Association of Occupa-tional Health Professionals in Healthcare.

"It’s always been seasoned nurses who have been in employee health," she says. "You really need that breadth of experience to manage what you see in your office on a day-to-day basis."

Motivated to learn

Reaching a later stage of your career presents its own challenges. This is a time to evaluate how you can best use your skills — and receive fair compensation for them.

"I think [employee health professionals] have to be motivated to continually learn new information and apply it to new situations," DiBenedetto says.

For example, the new federal privacy regulations (HIPAA) have placed new burdens on hospitals. Employee health professionals could become an important resource in implementing those rules, DiBenedetto advises.

Charlene M. Gliniecki, RN, MS, COHN-S, worked as an occupational health nurse for 23 years — 12 of them in hospital employee health — before becoming vice president of human resources at El Camino Hospital in Mountainview, CA.

Employee health gave her decision-making skills that could be applied to other areas, she says.

"There’s so much involved in managing workers compensation that applies to other benefits administration," she notes. "There are a lot of transferable skills and a similar job content. It’s just applied in a broader context [in human resources management]."

Many occupational health nurses wouldn’t be interested in handling the issues of benefits, compensation, and labor relations, explains Gliniecki, a nurse practitioner. But they might be able to move into broader roles overseeing hospital safety or risk management, she notes.

"We’re still at a time in history where there truly is a lack of experienced people to take on management roles in health care," Gliniecki says. "From that point of view, there is less competition for the roles. There are opportunities to move into those, if that’s what people want to do."

Higher-paying regions

The HEH survey found that 31% of respondents earned between $40,000 and $49,999, while 23% earned from $50,000 to $59,999. Salaries were somewhat higher in the West Coast and Northeast than in the Southeast, Southwest, or Midwest. (See geographical information below.)

That is similar to the national median salary of $54,569 reported on Salary.com, which includes occupational health nurses in all settings.

According to the database, a "safety director" earns a median salary of $71,158. (Again, that is not confined to hospital-based positions.)

Business acumen also is important to improving your own bottom line. An MBA may be the advanced degree that can earn you the greatest boost in your career and your salary, DiBenedetto advises. "You’re seen more as a business person rather than a nurse," she says. "I tripled my salary when I got my MBA."

You can bring a business savvy to your job even if you don’t have an MBA. Gliniecki notes that she makes sure the hospital’s employee health goals are aligned with the CEO’s overall goals for the organization. For example, employee health can help improve staff retention, lower absenteeism, or contain costs related to injuries.

"When we’re taking a piece of our CEO’s goals and helping him succeed, that’s a good way to show how we fit into the business," she says. "That is making the business case for why we’re here."

Workers’ compensation may be the greatest measurement tool you have, Gliniecki says.

Even if you keep costs stable, that’s a success in an environment of escalating medical expenses, she says.

"By managing the workers’ compensation, you can save in dollars the amount it takes to run your whole program for a whole year," she says.

If your occupational health program serves outside clients as well as the hospital employees, you may have more leverage, says DiBenedetto.

"It’s easier to demonstrate the return on investment because you’re bringing in money," she says. "If you’re bringing in millions of dollar in new revenue, you can get compensated accordingly [through a bonus system]."

Older workers bring new opportunities

The aging of the nursing population is affecting employee health just as it is other units of the hospital. That creates new opportunities for younger nurses interested in entering the field and elevates the value of the experienced employee health nurses.

"Who’s going to be the qualified occupational health professional to deliver services in the new arena?" DiBenedetto asks. "We’ve got to encourage nurses to come into the practice, excite them about occupational health practice."

Today’s employee health professionals also may need to reshape the job functions. They should use lower-skilled employees to do technical tasks, such as TB skin tests, while using their time to coordinate and facilitate the employee health programs, she says. You may be able to negotiate a better salary by using benchmarking tools, such as the HEH survey data. But sometimes it takes a substantial move to obtain a substantial raise.

"I think there are good opportunities with workers’ compensation [insurers] and health plans. The question is, What kind of environment do they you to be working in?’" she says.

"It’s just a matter of finding what’s the best opportunity for you and trying to go from there," DiBenedetto adds.