Occupational psychology is the study of human behaviour and experience in the workplace, it may be described as the application of psychological principles and theory in order to help organisations and their team. As occupational psychology also includes a focus on organisations in general, it may be wise to take great care when referring to the world of “employment” or “work”. This is simply because many people may work very hard for charitable organisations as volunteers, and their contribution may not always be focused on the increase of profits (although it may involve increasing productivity), and money may not be the main driving and motivating factor – depending on the organisation’s field, values, philosophy and goals.
Hence, occupational psychology tends to focus on the improvement of organisations’ effectiveness in terms of the work performed within, while respecting and managing the conditions leading to the satisfaction of the employees and employers.
Occupational psychology today generally requires sound knowledge and understanding in these three main categories:
(A) Human factors
(B) Personnel work
(C) Organisational psychology
(A) Human Factors
(i) Human-machine interaction
This field of study is also known as “ergonomics” and is primarily concerned on the study of human interaction with machines. For example, it has also been reported (Kelso, 2005) that the city of London was selected to host the 2012 Olympics due to the syndrome known as “fat finger” – the use of buttons too closely spaced, caused panel members with the syndrome to vote wrongly. This common error is considered to be the main factor leading to London being the host, since one panel member voted for Paris instead of Madrid, leading to the former winning by two votes and thus being London’s opponent instead of Madrid. City experts believed London would not have been able to win against Madrid. This very particular syndrome, namely “the fat finger syndrome” has also been blamed for several multi-million pound errors, for instance the mistaken purchase of 50,000 shares rather than £ 50 000 worth of shares.
(ii) Design of Environment and Work: Health and Safety
The next area has to do with health and safety, and focuses on factors regarding light, noise, general work space, ventilation, risk factors and occupational stress. It is to be noted that this is an incredibly important area, and a good example of a modern disaster reflecting the incredible importance of intelligent design in the field of health and safety, is the Fukushima disaster. The whole world was left unprepared to deal with the nuclear leak caused by the over flooding of the reactors due to the badly design of the walls not being high enough to withhold the excessive water brought in by the tsunami.
Another disastrous example is the loss of the US space shuttle Challenger in 1986, which for the very first time transported a teacher who was to have spoken from the spaceship the American president Reagan and her pupils. The horrific explosion happened live on television and millions of people who had been watching remember the iconic shot as a ‘flashbulb memory’. The likely cause of the explosion was a set of defective ‘O’ ring seals about which many engineers had complained about repeatedly; grave doubts were raised about the launching since the rings had never been used in temperatures as cold as that on the launch day. Irrational group decisions were made, and the launch proceeded despite the doubts – as the warning signs were explained and brushed away. A one third ‘burn out’ (erosion) of the Challenger ‘O’ ring on past launches was considered as a ‘safety factor’ of three (there would be two-thirds left, after all!) (Reason, 1990). This kind of irrational ‘rationalising’ is a feature of groupthink – no one wished to be responsible for delaying the launch and therefore disrupting the arrangement with Reagan. The people in ultimate control were highly cohesive and to some extent separated from those with the doubts. ‘Mind guards’ ensured that the engineers’ complaints were not heard by the decision-makers. The presidential commission investigating the decision-making process revealed that a major problem lay with a system of communication within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration organisation. The decision system was ambiguous; it was not clear which decision should go to the very top and it was consequently very hard to attribute clear responsibility.
(B) Personnel Work
(i) Personnel Selection and Assessment (including Test and Exercise Design)
An organisation hiring the wrong staff can be costly in terms of productivity, quality of service delivery and company / organisation reputation. Occupational psychologists throughout the years have contributed in the effective monitoring and filtering of quality in staff recruitment.
(ii) Performance Appraisal and Career Development
Psychologists can assist and advise organisations on how to run staff appraisals in order to create two-way relationships that employees respect and value, since career development is essential. However, this may also lead to the staff being extremely attractive to competing organisations. This would be beneficial to the individual but not so much for the organisation.
(iii) Counselling and Personal Development
This area comprises most of the skills found in general counselling psychology. Occupational psychologists may also practice as career advisors or stress management counsellors among a variety of other roles [being a versatile field that applies to various aspects of the human organism’s behaviour across a wide range of environments]. In these cases [when dealing with organisations and their staff], emphasis is primarily in being an attentive listener, demonstrating empathy and being accepted as genuine.
A productive workforce is a well-trained workforce, and one that avoids costly or dangerous errors. Good occupational psychologists tend to spend the majority of their time focussing on identifying training needs [to refine individuals’ skills, performance and delivery], and the design and delivery of training programmes.
(C) Organisational Psychology
(i) Employee Relations and Motivation
A wide range of aspects in mainstream social psychology was developed through the study of the ways that small groups interact and perform in a work context. This area includes research into conformity, obedience, teamwork, team building, attitudes, communication and especially leadership. It also investigates theories of work motivation.
(ii) Organisational Development & Change
Organisations tend to be dynamic and continually evolving structures. External influences [such as research, cultural demands and trends] force change on organisations in the competitive economic world of today’s industries. For example, most organisations in Western Europe have had to comply with the equal opportunities legislation and also with health and safety directions [e.g. concerning smoking at work]. In other cases organisation sometimes also have to overhaul or downsize the general managerial policies and culture. This is where occupational psychologists’ advice help & guide organisations during change; while altering attitudes, through reasoning, findings and theory from social psychology and group dynamics with the practical experience and judgement of organisational development.
As most of the research we tend to focus on revolves around the individual organism’s development and well-being, we will look at the human factors in occupational psychology; these generally revolve around:
- Designing or redesigning jobs
- The Design of Equipment to match Human Features and Capabilities
- Health and Safety at Work
- The Introduction of New Technologies
The services offered by psychologists in the personnel area tend to include:
(i) Selection and Assessment of Personnel
E.g. of a complete selection process in hiring a Lecturer:
Imagine we were part of a team that has to select a new lecturer for a University. Where exactly should we start? A good starting point would be to consider the essential demands of the task required of a lecturer. It is clear that lecturers have a whole lot more to do than simply lecturing. We should consider the importance of each aspect of the job. Next, we should be asking ourselves what a successful employee in the profession of lecturing would need to be able to cover in order to perform each of the academic tasks successfully; then devise a way of assessing each candidate for these abilities. It also goes without saying that an advert would have to be placed with the job description so the applicants may know exactly what they are applying for and whether or not they are suitable for the position and demands of the task. Finally, the selection process will have to be organised, where the candidates can be assessed with the successful one being selected [with a backup] for an appointment. The process does not stop here, however – as we may want to know whether the selection process was well designed and effective. We will also have to evaluate the procedure, not on the one appointment, but over several selections, by keeping track of the performance of each appointee over their first two years, for example, with their performance at the selection process. This is a method to find out whether our appointment procedures are effective and whether they produce the appropriate & desired results.
(ii) Appraisal of Work Performance
(iii) Training Programmes
(iv) Career Guidance and Counselling
(v) Issues of Equal Opportunity at Work
In the area organisational development, psychologist may also run projects concerning:
(i) Attitude and Opinion Surveys
(ii) Team building, Leadership and Management
(iii) Industrial Relations
(iv) The Modification, Update and Change of the Organisational Culture
(v) Enhancing the Quality of Working Life
(vi) Improvement of the Quality and Effectiveness of Communications
All these procedures contribute in a harmonious organisational environment and culture where productivity, employee and employer satisfaction are the main concerns, while minimising stress levels across the organisation. As we are now going to find out, stress can be devastating to both the mind and the body. Hence, design and selection are key steps in achieving stability, harmony and productivity through an efficient organisational culture.
Sustained Stress may have a fatal impact on Physiological Health
Stress is known for causing the increased secretion of cortisol, a hormone that could halt the production of cytokines, which are vital for maintaining a functional immune system (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2002). Over the years, a large number of research has also found positive correlations between daily cortisol levels and general health. The different levels of cortisol secretory activity have been linked to health problems such as hypertension, burnout, emotional distress, upper respiratory illness and eating behaviour. However, cortisol is paramount to increasing access to energy during stressful experiences and is released on a daily pattern by 2 well defined components; the “Cortisol Awakening Rise”; and the Diurnal levels that gradually decrease over the day. It has also been found that high levels of stress could lead to less cortisol being produced in the morning (O’Connor et al., 2009b). An individual going through a serious series of stressful events would have an increased risk of developing an infectious disease with no regards to their age, sex, education, allergic status and/or body mass index (Cohen, 2005).
Two types of stress associated with increased health deficiency
Cohen et al. (1998) identified two types of stress associated with increased health deficiency; these were interpersonal problems with family and friends; and/or enduring problems associated with work. As further research unveiled the dangers of stress, Janice Kiecolt et al. (1995) found that wound healing was also prolonged on people exposed to continuous stress, along with the lower levels of cytokine. Similarly, Marucha, Kiecolt-Glaser and Favagehi (1998) also concluded to findings over healing being prolonged on test subjects (dental students) where quicker healing was observed on vacation and not before their exams. Eventually, the conclusion of stress being a response to stressors lead to the latter being investigated in our daily lives by researchers for improvement.
Stress may be perceptual deficiency depending on whether subjective appraisal is Positive or Negative
Stress is generally perceived as negative perceptions and reactions when pressure is excessive. The transactional approach devised by Lazarus defines stress as “a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being” (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p.19) The theory has so far been one of the most solid finds in the field of occupational and organisational psychology and continues to be applied to various sections in the quest to enhance quality of both work and output.
Occupational Psychology in the Workplace: Stressors
In the field of Occupational psychology, the main focus has been on the study of human behaviour and experience in the workplace. As the world of work in the present generation is constantly changing, with companies adopting more flexible styles – along with developing technology – Lazarus and Folkman’s theory has been used in most stages of the employment life cycle in order to minimise the effects of stress on employees while maintaining a sensible amount of “good stress” (pressure) to maintain motivation. The concept is based on such solid logic that it could be applied to most areas of human interactive environment.
Applying Lazarus and Folkman’s theory of stress to occupational psychology will consider all elements that cause stress in the workplace connected to the physical requirements of the job. Stress can be physical, with factors such as noise, unsafe heights or slippery floor. These factors when present will not only cause the employee to be on guard but also likely distract them from being fully concentrated on their job for fear of harm. The solution would be to make a safer and more comfortable environment, however too safe is known to affect performance. The perfect fit would be right balance between motivational factors (incentives) and physical environment (not overly comfortable), that would lead to a design for the best fit for the job to the person (Morgeson & Campion, 2002). The human element should also not be forgotten in the case of a sociotechnical system (Trist & Bamforth, 1951) present where a Swiss cheese defence system might be in place to correct possible human errors. As mentioned, the stress element requires modelling according to Lazarus’ Theory which proves to be versatile for its huge range of application when considering different types of stressors and how to balance their effect on the employee.
Organisational “Culture”: Synchronised Workforce through situational patterns of performance-oriented behaviour
A strong culture is also essential for the organisation as this ensures the employee fits in with the organisation’s values. The organisation also has to ensure that most stressors are regulated and checked in order to ensure a stable functioning of the work force.
According to Richard Lazarus’ transactional theory of stress, minor day to day problems known as “hassles” can accumulate and cause stress. However one coping mechanism from the theory comes from coping which follows the appraisal stage. When a task is being appraised, the outcome defines whether the employee will see it as stress. However, the stressor can be approached positively and be re-appraised to instead fit the employee’s belief and capacity. Different appraisals usually define how the employee copes, such as understanding employee needs using Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs (1974). It is assumed that some needs are basic and innate and have to be met to sustain motivation. Managers can provide environments that harmonise with the needs of employees after learning what they are.
Maslow’s model puts forth the belief that safety and security have to be met before one can realise their full potential. One this basic need is satisfied, Maslow assumes the attention is shifted to the next need, which in this case would be a motivated move towards achieving the job. However, if this need is not satisfied, this gives rise to discomfort. Indirectly, Maslow’s model is applying the logic of Lazarus & Folkman (1984), as the stressors – which in this case is the inability to feel safe and secure – are being targeted while the manager would try to motivate the employee. Some criticism however questions the flexibility of the model for its assumption. Assuming several needs become important & crucial simultaneously how would the motivation of the employee be affected? Furthermore, self-actualisation is hard – if not impossible – to define, therefore it is hard to confidently know whether someone has reached the stage.
Mismatch between employee & job may cause Occupational Stress
Mismatch between an employee and a job can also cause occupational stress (French, 1973). If the job demand is appraised as too high, the employee could feel discouraged if the task creates demands than exceeds his/her capabilities, unless he has a stake in the outcome of his/her performance motivation will not be successful. Lazarus and Folkman’s theory of stress is once again applied with great efficiency as it opens the door for reasoning in how to deal with stressful situations and find the right coping mechanism that would allow the employee to carry on without negative attributions. One example of this application is to organisational development which is premised on the assumption of planned transformational change.
Organisational development has been defined as “a systematic effort applying behavioural science knowledge to planned creation and reinforcement of organisational strategies, structures and processes for improving an organisation’s effectiveness” (Huse & Cummings, 1985). The aim is to achieve commitment from the whole organisation dedicated to change. Organisational development intervention looks to a range of planned programmatic activities pursued by both clients & consultants. French, Bell and Zawacki (1994) differentiate between interventions directed at individuals (coaching, counselling), dyads (arbitration), teams (feebacks), inter group configurations (Survey, Feedback, etc) and organisations as whole (business process re-engineering). As the focus is swapped from one level to the next, the number of dimensions to consider increases, this adds to the complexity of the intervention process. However, all interventions tend to rely on organisational diagnosis [the assumption that something is not performing well enough and needs to be changed).
Tuning the Environment to balance Stress Levels
Appreciative inquiry is an organisational development model that focus on how things might have been or might be better (Cooperrider & Srivasta, 1987). The whole concept of organisational development follows the logic of Lazarus & Folkman (!984), as the transitions are all supported by teams of professionals [counselling / accustoming] which are geared at balancing the stress levels of accustoming the workforce to the new changes through a combination of modifications to the environment, motivational factor and security and support.
As organisational psychology deals with the administrative side and operational psychology deals with the task itself, they are still very closely associated. Changes in operational hassles will reduce the stress on the employee, as this would assumingly make the task at hand much more simple and straightforward. Changes in organisational hassles will increase the job satisfaction of the employee, as his time at work would be less cumbersome.
Interventions: Better Outcome when the Source of Stress is the Primary Focal Point
The main concepts of interventions usually concentrates primarily on reducing the source of stress, and secondly by reducing the impact on individuals which has been found to be more effective on people than reducing the risk (LeFevre, et al. 2006). Such an example can be seen when dealing with occupational problems, such as the termination of employment. Such an event can have a devastating effect on an employee’s life, especially if it was unpredicted [redundancy, released]. One way to deal with such a situation would be to provide counselling support to the released employee; these include trained professionals with listening, questioning & goal setting skills who help people to carry on in life (Egan, 1996). Clarifying with employees, the employable, marketable skills and helping them to plan short term goals by which skills might be applied in other situations.
Allowing the person concerned to release their feelings by speaking out over vocational and personal concerns, and helping them assess their resources. Finally help them find a placement or employment while also reinforcing with the employee, reminding them that they are skilled and mature and that their redundancy was a purely professional decision. What the whole process seems to have once again applied, is the logic of Lazarus & Folkman (1984) that proves itself as a solid formula applicable in most situations where stress is involved. In this context, the employees have been professionally re-appraised and should be better mentally to deal with upcoming challenges for fresh employment.
Reflexion: Appraisal & Subjective Perception is Key
The particular relationship between a person and his/her environment will vary on the positive or negative depending on the appraisal. Appraisal can sometimes be instinctive, and/or influenced by an individual’s perception which can in turn be influence by other biological factors (hunger, pain). This shows that no matter how deep the stress causes may be, Lazarus’ formula – although simple – has an application that can logically construct or deconstruct most situations dealing with occupational and organisational stress.
One of the main points worth considering however, is the fact that men tend to experience more stress than women from the “need for recognition” pressure, while women experience more stress from health issues; social support benefits stress levels for males and females but affects them differently [organisational commitment in males & state of mind in females].
Video: Stress is one of the factors that can trigger cancer. Jean-Baptiste ALEXANIAN explains…
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