“At the heart of it is always the people”

AOP chair, Professor Julie-Anne Little, on what makes a positive working environment and keeps her engaged in academia

ball in the water

Whatever you do in life, at the heart of it is always the people – from the people you work and interact with day-to-day, to the patients you see and treat. Therefore, it is important that across any type of team there is a shared ethos and shared values amongst the people working within it. It is also important that each person feels that they are working within a team and in an environment where their values are reflected. When all of these elements work in harmony, it can be a really powerful thing.

Operating within a good team dynamic can make everyone’s day easier. It can make time fly by. Plus, effective teams that work together will produce better results for both a business and their patients. Ultimately, the patient entering a practice is going to feel and sense that too.

Into academia

Personally, for me, I really love the team that I am part of within the optometry school at Ulster University. We are a small team of academic staff who deliver a really strong optometry programme. Our University also has the enviable position of a relatively small cohort of students, which means we get to know each and every one of them, allowing us to create a real kind of family ethos across the department.

In terms of the working environment and the large role that the people who work within a team have to play in creating a positive working environment, for me, this is paired with flexibility, variety and opportunity. As an academic, I have the opportunity to pursue research that is clinically relevant to optometry, enabling me to develop the evidence base and perform research to address gaps in our knowledge for the benefit of the vision of our patients. I find it exciting to have that kind of carte blanche and autonomy to my work environment too.

Academia also provides me with the opportunity and flexibility to delve into other areas of the profession. For example, it has enabled me to participate as an education visitor for the General Optical Council, contribute to a range of committees, become involved in optometry on a European level, and to contribute to the AOP (to name but a few). It gives me the freedom to expand myself and my knowledge in what I value the most.

Further education and happiness

Another way that professionals may feel valued and engaged in their role is through progression and professional development. During Professor Bruce Evans’ acceptance speech when he received the AOP’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he said one of the most rewarding parts of his career has been learning new things, and I couldn’t agree more. Yes, while for some, the thought of enrolling in some of the post-graduate qualifications that are now available across the profession can feel daunting, overwhelmingly, in my experience, practitioners find them a really positive experience – one that reinvigorates them and their daily working lives.

This type of professional development can bring practitioners confidence, and a renewed sense of purpose and belief that they are doing something that has relevance and benefits their patients. It can set them on a journey to enabling them to work to the top of their licence, enabling them to extend the care they offer through enhanced pathways, for example. What we now want to see, and what the AOP is pushing for, is a commissioning framework in place where those skills are able to be utilised to the maximum and the profession is remunerated accordingly.

You regret what you don’t do, not what you do

Creating and working within a positive environment that enables practitioners to flourish is key when it comes to the future of the profession.

The risk if we do not is a workforce decline, leaving pockets of geographical areas where it is really hard to recruit. These areas may rely on short-term fixes when what is needed are long-term sustainable solutions to attract practitioners to these areas for permanent roles through more flexible contracts in terms of working days and hours, for example.

Generally, the practitioners who put their heads above the parapet, advance their knowledge and take a different path are never the people who regret what they do. The saddest thing is meeting someone who feels trapped and dissatisfied in their job, and doesn’t see a way out or a way that they can still use the skillset they have. As optometrists we are clinicians, we have advanced clinical management skills paired with effective communication skills. We have lots to bring to a team and sometimes we don’t always value that in ourselves.

About the author

Professor Julie-Anne Little is an optometrist, chairman of the AOP Board, and a senior lecturer at Ulster University

• As told to Emily McCormick.