You must have these business skills to survive in today's tough economy

(Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part series on how occupational health professionals can survive in a down economy. This month, we cover business skills that you must obtain. Last month, we covered how to promote yourself and your expertise. Next month will give steps to take if you suspect your company is going to outsource occupational health or cut programs.)

If you were trying to persuade senior management to purchase a piece of lift-assist equipment, would you try to get them to sympathize with the workers who go home with aching backs? Or would you determine the cost of the average back injury at your organization, and divide that figure into the cost of the equipment?

By doing this, you can come up with the number of back injuries it will take to "pay back" the cost of the equipment. "You can then determine how many back injuries you have had over a certain period of time. From there, you can determine the length of time for ROI [return on investment] in that piece of equipment," says Pam Hart, MPH, RN, COHN-S, CSP, director of safety and wellness at Doherty Employment Group in Edina, MN.

Whether you're a novice or an expert, business skills are required as companies look to cut costs anyplace they can, says Hart. "It is not enough to be an excellent nurse. You also have to be able to 'sell' your message to the decision makers. There are always other things competing for the same budget funds you need."

Chris Kalina, MBA, MS, RN, COHN-S/CM, FAAOHN, director of global occupational health programs and services at Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company in Chicago, says that early in her career, she was unable to convey the value of occupational health programs in business terms during meetings.

"Nobody cared about the medical reasons for doing things," Kalina says. "They cared about how it benefited the business. I was really frustrated that I wasn't able to articulate the value of occupational health and safety programs and services, beyond what is required for compliance with laws and regulations." She obtained a master's degree in health care administration, but she decided it wasn't enough, and went on to get her MBA.

The first step is to decide how far you want to go. Consider taking courses in management, benchmarks, and the use of technology to display data, as well as obtaining a master's degree or enrolling in a certificate program, says Susan A. Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, clinical assistant professor of the Occupational Health Nursing Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Talk in terms of numbers

Use metrics instead of vague terms when communicating about your programs.

"We all understand that nurses do the right thing and are caring and compassionate people," says Kalina. "But when it comes to business, that is a whole other thing. We have to demonstrate that the investment in the occupational health provider is also valuable to the business."

Get accustomed to speaking in terms of how prevention of injury saves worker's compensation costs, how prevention of illness saves disability costs and lost time, and how targeted health promotion programs prevent illness.

"All these programs can save costs to the company," says Kalina. "The savings is a return on the company's investment in you as the occupational health provider."

SOURCES

For more information on skills and training needed during a challenging economy, contact:

• Pam Hart, MPH, RN, COHN-S, CSP, Director of Safety and Wellness, Doherty Employment Group, Edina, MN. Phone: (952) 832-8324. E-mail: pahart@dophertyemployment.com.

• Chris Kalina, MBA, MS, RN, COHN-S/CM, FAAOHN, Director, Global Occupational Health Programs and Services, Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, Chicago. Phone: (312) 645-3770. E-mail: ckalina@wrigley.com.

• Susan A. Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, Clinical Assistant Professor, Occupational Health Nursing Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Phone: (919) 966-0979. Fax: (919) 966-8999. E-mail: susan.randolph@unc.edu.