“The past year has shone a spotlight on the necessity of occupational health” — CEO Q&A with Paula Cogan, CEO of Cognate Health

CEO Q&A, Interviews | Wed 7 Apr | Author – Business & Finance
Pictured: Paula Cogan, CEO of Cognate Health

Paula Cogan is CEO of Cognate Health, a nationwide occupational health provider. The company experienced growth in 2020 of 20%, and currently supports over 120,000 employees nationwide. Paula is also President of Cork Chamber of Commerce.

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

My leadership philosophy has always been to embrace and grow with change, empower the people around me to reach their full potential and establish a clear vision. This is very much aligned with my goals for Cognate Health, to support our company and employees to innovate and grow in 2021. We want to continue to offer best in class services and medical expertise to ensure our customers, and their workers, are supported through COVID-19 and beyond.

 What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

The world is more challenged that ever but I’m a firm believer that where there is disruption, comes opportunity. We are growing Cognate Health, and we want to continue to offer best-in-class services to our existing clients. We have always been consultant-led, client-centric, and this requires careful management of projects and timelines, ensuring that our existing team are empowered to get on with their day-to-day roles while bringing in external expertise to support. Building new teams in the middle of a pandemic certainly brings challenges. However, we have adapted and learned during the remote hiring and onboarding process and we are finding that the recruitment process is even more streamlined now than pre-COVID-19.

How do you keep your team/ staff motivated?

The Cognate Health team has been so dynamic, going above and beyond to deliver our services so successfully in 2020. We now need to ensure they are provided with tools and supports to continue to do their job virtually as the majority are working from home or offsite. We are investing in technology and, more importantly, our people through enhancing our employee value proposition of training and development, employee benefits and a range of other supports. Our ambition is to be the best-in-class employer in occupational health.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

Digital innovation has come late to healthcare and the services we provide are complex and require a wide and diverse range of digital supports. It costs a lot of money to digitally innovate but if we do not invest, we run the risk of being left behind. COVID-19 has accelerated this process for our industry and, I believe, it will be to the benefit of clients.

“The past year has shone a spotlight on the necessity of occupational health”

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

Use of virtual technology to deliver consultations is definitely an emerging trend we are seeing. Who would have thought that 90% of our customers initial interaction with our medical team would be online in 2020? Transformative for the industry, digital consultations are a welcome addition — being both convenient and efficient — to the services that we provide for our clients.

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

Mental health and wellbeing is chronically underfunded in the public health sector. This has a knock-on impact on employers who are tasked with filling the gap, providing supports and resources. There needs to be a more connected health model where work and lifestyle operate in tandem to support wellness of employees. We have found that since the pandemic started, a staggering seven out of 10 initial assessments are for mental health and anxiety related issues.

Legislation from the Government’s national remote working strategy, which gives employees the right to request remote working, is set to be introduced in September. It is a welcome development for both employees and employers alike. However, all stakeholders need to be aligned on it, particularly around mental health support in the workplace, with input from employers and occupational health experts.

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

While we have the largest network of occupational health physicians in the country, we are seeing a nationwide shortage of qualified occupational health nurses and physicians. However, this isn’t only an Irish issue — it is a challenge also globally. The UK’s Government’s Work and Health Unit released a report last year in which they outlined that ongoing shortages had led to unfilled roles for more than two-fifths of occupational health providers. It is an incredibly innovative and exciting area of work and that needs to be promoted more.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

The economic crisis, while having a negative impact on some areas of industry, did not impact on all. Thankfully, Cognate Health as a company managed its finances prudently throughout the crisis. Staying close to our customer and diversifying to new industry sectors worked successfully.

How will Brexit affect you, or have you started to feel the effects already?

Brexit currently is having little impact on our business. However, it is still early days and some sectors — hospitality, retail and potentially construction — that we work with may continue to be impacted in the medium term.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

Success for me is ensuring our company is operating in a fair and equitable manner with our employees, clients, and partners. It is great to be able to attract new talent to work with Cognate Health and I love to see employees achieve their full potential. Happy customers, who can clearly see how we make a difference to their employees’ wellbeing, are also so important.

What is the best advice you have been given, or would give, in business?

Treat others as you would like them to treat you. And always keep your eye on the horizon. You need to be resilient in this job and always looking forward. There is no room to lose sight of your strategy and the opportunities ahead.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

It has to be moving to a new role as CEO of a company in the middle of COVID-19. Before even joining Cognate Health, I found it to be an outstanding company, unrivalled in its approach to occupational health for over 20 years. There is a huge depth and breadth of clinical expertise on the team, and a really clear client journey — one point of contact, consistency and quick turnarounds.

What is next for your company?

The past year has shone a spotlight on the necessity of occupational health, with companies placing huge importance especially on employee wellness. We are focused on digital innovation and bringing new products to market to support our customers, who in turn support their employees as they return to a new working environment post COVID-19. Also, we currently have 28 occupational health professionals with the company across 16 counties. This is continuing to grow and it is anticipated we will have an additional 10-15% more OHPs onboard in the next three years.

It is all about boosting productivity, reducing absenteeism, improving wellness and reducing risk. We have an incredibly strong team to bring this over the line, with everyone focused on the development and execution of a future and dynamic vision for Cognate Health, building on an already strong reputation and expertise.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

That is very simple. To be the employer and partner of choice in occupational health in Ireland.