The workplace can be a dangerous place. Employees can be exposed to many threats to both their physical and psychological safety. Some of these threats come from the physical environment as employees in many workplaces use potentially dangerous chemicals or machinery. Other threats come from the social work environment as employees are bullied, verbally abused, and even physically assaulted. All of these threats can involve a number of psychological factors, such as the employee’s own behavior. That is why the field of occupational health psychology was developed.
What Is Occupational Health Psychology?
Occupational health psychology or OHP is concerned with psychological factors that impact employee health and safety in the workplace, most notably job stress. There are at least three reasons that the field was developed in the 21st century to focus attention on health in the workplace.
- The psychology establishment was ignoring stress and other OHP issues. The area of psychology most concerned with the workplace, Industrial-Organizational (IO) psychology, until recently, rarely dealt with issues of employee health. For example, when I wrote the first edition of my IO textbook in the early 1990s, one of the publisher’s peer reviewers recommended I remove the health and safety chapter because it did not fit in a book on IO psychology. Those interested in OHP issues felt they needed their own identified field.
- OHP is interdisciplinary. The researchers who established the field of OHP were not all psychologists. Research and practice in what came to be known as OHP came from business management, ergonomics, industrial hygiene, medicine, and nursing.
- Growing awareness of the issues. Many OHP issues have become widely known to professionals and the general public. These include bullying, carpal tunnel syndrome, sexual harassment (think Me Too Movement #metoo), stress, and workplace violence just to name a few.
Why Is Occupational Health Psychology a Field?
Occupational Health Psychology is considered a field for several reasons.
- It is recognized as a field by government agencies like NIOSH, and professional societies like American Psychological Association.
- There are two societies devoted to OHP
- There are graduate programs at universities where you can study OHP.
- Two major academic journals are devoted to OHP
- There are books on the subject, such as
What Have We Learned?
More than 25 years of research on OHP has given us insights into how the workplace can affect health, and how organizations can be designed to be more healthful places to work.
- Stressful working conditions can affect both emotional and physical health. These conditions can involve the work itself (e.g., having too much work or working too many hours) and interactions among people (e.g., bullying and mistreatment).
- The climates of organizations (policies and practices) contribute to employee health and well-being.
- Safety climate. The extent to which organizations encourage employees to follow safety rules that reduce accidents.
- Psychological safety climate. The extent to which organizations encourage people to be respectful of one another and create a place where people feel free to express themselves without being attacked or criticized.
- How people feel about work can affect their physical health. Having to remain in a job that one hates can lead to physical injuries like back aches and to health symptoms, such as headaches and stomach distress.
Occupational health psychology is a new and exciting field that is making organizations better for employees and other stakeholders.
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