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Goal Setting in Occupational Health

By Hardev Singh Agimal, PAM Group

Published 30 November 2022

SMART Postit notes

We may not realise it, but we set goals most days. Our goals can look very different depending on our lifestyles, values, needs, and our own definitions of success. The more classic understanding and definitions around goal setting is simple: it’s the process of identifying something we want to accomplish and achieve and establishing a method and process to achieve it, and a timeframe in which we wish to achieve it by (Robbins, 2021). We do this most days for ourselves. We think about something we want to achieve, how to achieve it, and when to achieve it. These can be smaller-scale tasks like cooking dinner or larger-scale DIY projects: so why is goal setting with and for our patients so difficult? We know that a collaborative approach to goal setting, and setting regular short-term targets and goals often leads to greater success (Cambridge University Press, 2021 & Robbins, 2021), yet goal setting seems to be something that can be overlooked in Occupational Health. 

A “SMART” approach to goals will help us when we are working with our service-users. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely (HealthStream, 2018 & NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 2021), and there are some points to think about below then looking at each of these sections: 

What are we going to do?

How are you going to do it? 

Where are you going to do it? 

When are you going to do it? 

With whom are you going to do it with? 

Making the goal specific, using some of the above prompts, measures that it should be easier to measure whether or not the goal has been achieved 

Set goals that are within reach. Failing to achieve goals can have a negative impact on motivation and compliance to work towards a goal, so it is important to set a realistic goal that both challenges an individual, but is not so far out of reach that achieving the goal is seen as an obstacle or hindrance.

Do you believe the goals are relevant to you or the service-user? It is important for an individual to see a clear link between the goal and how this will impact the aspects of their health and wellbeing that are important to them. 

Is it the right time for this particular goal? 

Always set a timeframe for a goal 

Setting mini-goals can help an individual achieve ‘small wins’ to keep them motivated and helps them take steps to a more ambitious goal 

It is important to work with individuals to help establish what is important for them right now, what is important for their future, what do they want to achieve, and what are their strengths. Our needs, our goals will be different. Some of us may wish to have goals start a family, or return to work, or learn a new hobby. When we are looking at goals in Occupational Health, we can use these to improve physical, social, and psychosocial health. We can set goals for an employee to meet a friend or replicate a work task at home. This could help someone feel less isolated and we are in a prime position to create an action plan to help people achieve these goals (Department of Health, 2011). 

Getting individuals to think about goals is hard. It often means we have to think about change, either within ourselves or our lifestyle and this has several barriers. Again, this puts us as healthcare providers in Occupational Health in a prime position. We can work collaboratively with individuals and get to think about change and goals in their own words. This will help with two things: 1) it helps individuals be more motivated with their goals, and 2) it helps take the emphasis away from us in setting those goals and offers a more person-centred approach and allows an individual to have greater responsibility over their care (Department of Health, 2011). 

Many individuals will have already set goals but are unaware. It is important to understand what an individual is doing to see how we can build on this. Having long-term goals is very common; however, short-term goals can often be missing. It can be important to use short-term goals over days or weeks to help individuals achieve small steps to help work towards a bigger target (Department of Health, 2011).

Importance of Goals Specifically in Occupational Health

Goal setting is at the heart of every organisation; we all have something that we are trying to achieve. We are in a unique position where we can work collaboratively with other employees and ensure our SMART goals are functional and this will help to aid recovery and their employers organisational goals. We are also in a position to prevent occupational accidents (Krstev, 2008) and reduce the risk of injury (Schaufeli et al., 2008) by ensuring our goals are tailored to each individual and their needs. A secondary benefit from this, is that employees may become more engaged and motivated in the workplace which can lead to improved performance (Bakker & Van Woerkomm, 2018). 

Helping to set the right goals for each individual allows them to focus on their strong points, improve their weaker areas, feel engaged with their rehabilitation and recovery, and these can have lasting impacts in the workplace with increased motivation, self-worth, and psychological health (Van Den Broeck, 2008). Naturally, individuals will focus on the negatives. It is far easier to focus on what is not going well in our work and personal life; however, if we can help set the right goals through our rehabilitation pathways to encourage people to goals to overcome these negatives and create more positive environments for them to thrive in (Bakker & Derks, 2012). 

Goal setting is vital because it helps an individual decide and focus on what is really important and matters to them 
Effective, collaborative goal setting lets individuals measure progress, overcome procrastination, and achieve their goals 
Goals keeps the individual accountable. Whether it is in the workplace, your personal life, or your health, telling others about your goals make you more accountable and more likely to take the appropriate steps to achieve those goals
Removing and resolving ambivalence is a key factor in motivating people to change. At Occupational Health, we can inform and advise, but ultimately it is the individual who decides whether to change or not 
We won’t always achieve our goals, or it make take longer than we think. We shouldn’t see this as a failure; particularly when it comes to those we support through Occupational Health. We are in a position where we should support the efforts achievements made, even if the overall goal has not been achieved. 

If our goals focus solely on output quantity, this can lead to lower quality and this can increase the risk of injury (Goerg, 2015). This can also lead to disengagement from the goal, because that output serves benefit to somebody else rather than the individual trying to achieve the goal. 
If the goals are not realistic and they are overly ambitious, then we can often take great risk in trying to achieve them. 
Failing to achieve and meet goals can lead to dissatisfaction and reduced motivation (Latham & Locke, 2006). 
If an individual lacks the understanding and knowledge to achieve their goal, individuals can use sheer effort and persistence which can result in a good performance but this can often be misplaced or misdirected so we don’t achieve our goals.

In Conclusion

At Occupational Health, again we find ourselves in a unique position where setting goals can benefit the employer and the employee. If we set the right goals, and appropriate goals, and the risk of injury can be reduced this reduces the cost the employer as they require fewer Occupational Health referrals, and provides a more effective and efficient rehabilitation process to the employee. 


Bakker, A. B., & Derks, D. (2012) “Occupational Health Psychology” Chapter 7: Positive Occupational Health Psychology 

Bakker, A. B., & Van Woerkom, M. (2018) “Strengths Use in Organisations: A Positive Approach of Occupational Health.” Canadian Psychology 59(1), pages: 38-46 

Cambridge University Press. 2021 “Goal Setting” Accessed: 31/03/2021

Department of Health. 2011 “Goal Setting and Action Planning As Part of Personalised Care Planning” Improving Care for People with Long Term Conditions Accessed: 08/04/2021

Goerg, S. J. (2015) “Goal Setting and Worker Motivation” IZA World of Labour 178(1), pages: 1-10 

HealthStream. 2018 “Healthcare Management & Administration Blog” Organisational Goal Setting in Healthcare: Best Practices Accessed: 10/04/2021

Krstev, S. 2008 “Occupational Health Objectives.” Encyclopedia of Public Health 978 (1), pages: 5614-5617

Latham, G. & Locke, E. (2006) “Enhancing the Benefits and Overcoming the Pitfalls of Goal Setting” Organisational Dynamics 35(4), pages: 332-340

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. 2021 “Goals and Action Plans” Accessed: 05/04/2021 

Robbins, T. 2021 “How Can I Create A Compelling Future?” Accessed: 29/03/2021

Schaufeli, W., Leiter, M. & Taris, T. (2008) “Work Engagement: An Emerging Concept in Occupational Health Psychology.” An International Journal of Work, Health & Organisations 22(3), pages: 187-200 

Van Den Broeck, A. (2008) “Self-Determination Theory: A Theoretical and Empirical Overview in Occupational Health Psychology.” Ku Leuven 82(2), pages: 63-88

Hardev Singh Agimal is a Senior Physiotherapist at PAM Group, Physio Solutions





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