Salary increases better in 2003, but hours still long
Occ-health nurses balance work and life
Do as I say, not as I do. The occupational health nurse is quick to point out to workers when too many long hours are detrimental, but the nurse is likely to be putting in just as many hours, if not more. According to the 2004 Occupational Health Management salary survey, the working day for occ-health nurses still is a long one. The good news is, they were rewarded a bit more last year with salary increases that topped those from the year before. (See charts illustrating the results.)
Raises healthier in 2003
Salary increases over the past year were a bit better than they were reported to be the previous year, based on comparisons of the 2003 and 2004 OHM salary surveys. In the 2004 survey, 71% of the occupational health professionals who responded said they received salary increases of 1-6%, compared to 69% of respondents who’d received raises of between 1% and 6% the previous year. A closer look at the raises within that range reveal that more raises were in the 1% to 3% range than in the 4% to 6% range, according to the 2004 survey, a slight negative change from what was reported in the 2003 survey.
"I think, across the board, in any industry, you’re going to find people who just consider themselves lucky to have a job right now, so a 1%-3% increase is going to be pretty standard," says Susan A. Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, president of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN), based in Atlanta.
While the majority of survey participants reported raises in the 1%-6% range, another 25% of the total respondents said their salary did not change in the last year, while 4% reported increases of 7%-10%.
Occupational health professionals are working hard for those increases, the OHM survey indicates. Long working hours continue to be an occupational hazard, Randolph says. "I’m hearing that it takes more and more time, depending on number of staff you have, to get the work done," she reports. "For many people, their job responsibilities have broadened, there’s more work to do, and they’re just trying to get it all done."
41- to 50-hour workweek the norm
This year’s survey reflects that while 29% of those responding work a typical full- or part-time schedule of 20-40 hours per week, almost 46% are working 41-50 hours per week. And 21% report they are working 56-60 hours per week — an average of 11-12 hours every day of the week. "I view the technology we have today as a tool that can assist you, but it can also mean you are on 24/7," Randolph says. "With e-mail, you get an immediate response, often, and so you end up being able to do more, but it means you might be doing more and doing it more hours per week."
Because some occupational health practitioners travel — either to satellite sites of their employers’, or to client sites if working as a consultant — they wind up doing work at night and on weekends, making up for the time lost during travel, Randolph says. "It seems as if there’s never really enough time to take a breath," she adds. "It’s important to try to balance that, to put things in perspective and to have time to approach things in other ways."
More staff, or just more work?
The 2004 survey included a question that had not been posed in the OHM survey for two years: "How has the size of your staff changed in the past 12 months?" The respondents said that 62.5% of them had seen growth in their staff during the last year — a figure that on first glance might seem to represent a boom in the field.
But Randolph says there could be other reasons. "There has been some rebound of the economy, and that might be reflected in those figures, and it could reflect that employers are recognizing the importance of having a healthy and productive work force and are investing in having the additional staff to address those particular needs," she says. "But it also could be that with streamlining and cutting back of staff, other programs might be being folded in under the occupational health umbrella, and that could account for an increase in staff.
"Perhaps environmental health in a company is brought into the occupational health department, and in that case, it would not really be a growth in staff as much as it would be a realigning or broadening of the staff."
In the 2004 survey, 54% of those responding are at the manager/coordinator level in occupational health. Twenty percent are directors of occupational health, and 13% are occupational health nurses.
Ahead of the curve
Recognizing that to keep an occ-health program going in the current business climate an occupational health professional must be as valuable to the program as possible, many occupational health nurses are eyeing advanced degrees, according to Wendi Robbins, RN, PhD, director of occupational and environmental health nursing, the University of California-Los Angeles School of Nursing.
Robbins says a trend at UCLA is for occ-health nurses to go back to school to become occupational nurse practitioners, so that they will be qualified not only a wider range of clinical services, but also will be more expert at managing the business side of an employee health program. "Another option we’re seeing is for them to just enter a program where they learn budgeting and management, and in that way make themselves a more valuable employee," Robbins adds.
The wide range of expertise an occupational health professional can bring to a workplace is one of the things that influences salaries in the field and attracts new nurses into the specialty of occupational health and safety, Randolph says. "We [in the occ-health field] are doing thing to reach out to nursing students who are getting ready to graduate, to let them know that this is a viable, wonderful opportunity in which to grow," she says. "We like to highlight that this is a field in which you can be much more autonomous, working alone to make decisions that keep workers well."
The nursing shortage continues to be a factor. The struggle is to get students into nursing school, period, much less into the occupational health field specifically, Randolph says.
Older nurses attracted to field
Attractive salaries are a key component to drawing in new nurses, Randolph points out. While the OHM survey indicates that quite a few respondents are in a higher income range, Randolph says those figures should be taken in context to the age range of those in the field. "The population as a whole is aging, and so you are going to have a larger number of folks in that age range," Randolph says.
Just 12% of those responding to the survey are younger than 40; this is not entirely surprising, because occupational health has traditionally been viewed as a field into which nurses move after they have gained a variety of experience. Almost 46% of those surveyed are between ages 41 and 50; 4% are 51 to 55 years of age; and 29% are age 61 through 65 years.
As in other nursing specialty areas, largely women populate the occ-health field. Consultants say occupational safety and health is an area that seems to be attracting more males, particularly in the areas of manufacture and industry. In the 2004 survey, 17% of the respondents are men.
Attract them with money . . . or with respect
While the OHM salary survey asks respondents only about monetary compensation, Randolph says employers are showing some creativity in rewarding occupational health staff in nonmonetary ways. Granted, she says, "That doesn’t pay the bills," but what can help pay the bills — or at least make those long hours go by more easily — is some form of compensation that signals the work being performed is necessary and appreciated. "If not a raise, then there are other benefits, such as being recognized for the good work that they do," she says. "They can be shown that they are valued as a contributing worker, or that they are respected for their decisions. Giving someone responsibility can go a long way [toward employee satisfaction]."
The challenges faced on the job can be rewarding as well, those in the field say. "The critical thinking that is involved, the challenge of keeping employees well, as opposed to being a floor nurse in a hospital and your focus being on making people well, are all aspects of the job that can help retain nurses in the specialty," Randolph says.
Finally, where the occ-health professional is working influences his or her income, according to survey results. The Northwest, West, and West Coast areas yielded the most respondents reporting incomes from $60,000 to $89,999.