A Student’s Perspective
Attention to Occupational Health Psychology (OHP) — which covers issues of health and safety for workers and organizations — has been increasing since these issues were formally acknowledged with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970. OHP reflects a multi-disciplinary approach to research and practice focused on improving the working lives of individuals, their families, communities, andthe organizations for which they work (Sauter & Hurrell, 1999; Society for Occupational Health Psychology, 2006). As initially conceived, this goal would be met by applying a combination of clinical, industrial-organizational (I-O), and health psychological principles to these challenges (Quick, 1999; Schneider, Camara, Tetrick, & Stenberg, 1999).
For students, OHP presents a large array of research and practice opportunities and challenges built on the foundational goals of the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Because of their complex nature, most OHP challenges require collaborative efforts with other occupational health-related fields such as epidemiology, public health, ergonomics, and industrial hygiene. Approaching these issues with a broad view and a multidisciplinary team is the most likely way to create lasting health organizational changes. If this vision sounds too idealistic and intangible for you, here are a few more concrete actions to begin with:
- Consider how your interests in psychology might be applied to or informed by ongoing OHP research and practice.
- Push yourself to work with others who have different backgrounds/skill sets. Working through any tension that may result in these relationships can help you in future collaborations.
- Educate yourself in OHP-related disciplines (e.g., take courses outside your specialty area, do research with non-psychologists, read broadly).
- Know yourself — understand your psychology-related strengths and where your knowledge and expertise is weaker. This will help you identify when collaboration will be helpful.
Identifying critical research issues is often difficult, especially for students. Thankfully, some guidance for OHP researchers is provided by NIOSH and its National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA). Students wanting to engage in OHP research can take some cues from NORA’s newest incarnation, set to debut this year. In addition to topical guidance, NIOSH (among other sources) also offers multiple grant funding opportunities for NORA-guided research. If OHP research interests you:
- Familiarize yourself with the most current version of the NORA (you can find this through the NIOSH main website http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/).
- Apply for a small grant to support your OHP-related research in a field setting. You may be more likely to find cooperative organizations if you can at least partially subsidize your project costs. More importantly, experience with grants can also prepare you for future, larger-scale OHP research.
If your interests are in a more applied OHP career, you may find the situation a bit more ambiguous. Fortunately, the market for OHP specialists is improving as more people are realizing the reciprocal relationship between employees’ and an organization’s well-being. Students interested in applied OHP can also make a difference in a policy making capacity. Very limited governmental attention has been paid to workplace health and safety issues, leaving important gaps that OHP researchers and practitioners can fill. Knowledge of OHP and its related disciplines is especially pertinent to workplace health issues involving the human system and its interaction with multiple psychosocial factors. “Policy maker” is not usually one of the careers that logically follows a degree in psychology, but if you are pulled to this field by a desire to improve health and well-being then you should consider building a skill set for policy-related work:
- Get involved with student government and committee work within your psychology program. Learn the structure and process behind such operations and improve your understanding of interpersonal politics.
- Learn about local, state, and federal regulations related to OHP issues. Pay attention to new developments in these areas and try to understand the policy making process.
Developing Your OHP Perspective
To maintain its broad, multidisciplinary emphasis on worker and organization health and well-being, OHP requires students to develop and use a diverse skill set from psychology and other related fields. A strong background in systems and integrative thinking, research methodology, and statistical analyses and interpretation is necessary to successfully address complex problems that arise at individual, organizational, and societal levels. By developing these skills, students can join the OHP field to support the promotion of health and wellness in the workplace.
To learn more about how you can get involved in OHP, please visit the SOHP website: http://www.sohp-online.org.
Many thanks to Kizzy Parks, Leslie Hammer, and Peter Chen, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.
Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. (1970). Pub. L. No. 91-596, 84 Stat. 1590.
Quick, J. C. (1999). Occupational Health Psychology: The convergence of health and clinical psychology with public health and preventive medicine in an organizational context. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(2), 123-128.
Sauter, S. L., & Hurrell, J. J. (1999). Occupational Health Psychology: Origins, content, and direction. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(2), 117-122.
Schneider, D. L., Camara, W. J., Tetrick, L. E., & Stenberg, C. R. (1999). Training in Occupational Health Psychology: Initial efforts and alternative methods. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(2), 138-142.
Society for Occupational Health Psychology. (2006). Mission statement. Retrieved May 1, 2006 from http://sohp.psy.uconn.edu/About.htm.