Occupational Health Psychology

The goal of occupational health psychology (OHP) is to improve the quality of work life, and to protect and promote the health of workers and of their families. OHP is interdisciplinary, involving most areas of psychology and drawing upon fields such as public health, sociology, medicine, and industrial engineering. OHP is typically characterized as having a threefold focus on the work environment, the individual worker, and the interface between work and family. Interventions and/or research range across all three levels (primary, secondary, and tertiary) of the public health model of prevention.

Historical Roots of Occupational Health Psychology

In many respects, OHP grew out of efforts to understand, and later to remediate, the impact of the widespread application of Frederick Taylor’s management principles on workers in both the United States and Europe. Nearly a century ago, Taylor argued that industrial productivity can be improved by simplifying, compartmentalizing, and standardizing worker tasks. Thinking about work was considered the domain of managers, while doing the work (without thinking) was the role of the mass of workers. At its most extreme, the Taylor approach aims to make workers interchangeable and the emotional responses or perceptions of workers are considered irrelevant.

Although the Taylor approach has always had detractors, particularly among organized labor, it wasn’t until the 1960s that researchers began to investigate the links between one’s work life and one’s physical and emotional health. Much of this seminal research was conducted in Europe, particularly in Scandinavian countries. Prominent among these efforts were Robert Karasek’s studies demonstrating that workers who experience high job demands and have low decision-making latitude tend to experience poorer mental health and are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Researchers began focusing on ways to redesign jobs to improve worker health and satisfaction. Others investigated the impact of un- and/or underemployment on workers. Contrary to the precepts of the Taylor management approach, it is now recognized that many of the same factors associated with physical and mental health (stimulation, variety, task control, autonomy, etc.) are also associated with higher levels of job performance.

In the United States, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been a leader in researching work-related stress. Although occupational safety and health often seems to concern itself only with traumatic injuries and toxic exposures, it is significant that the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 that created NIOSH specifically recognized the need to investigate the role of psychological factors related to occupational safety and health. In 1990, NIOSH partnered with the American Psychological Association (APA) to fund the initial development of OHP curriculum at 12 universities in the United States. This partnership also led to a series of conferences on topics related to work organization and work-related stress. Recently, the newly formed Society for Occupational Health Psychology joined NIOSH and APA as a conference sponsor and plans have been formalized for future conferences to be held biennially. In 1996, the partnership between NIOSH and APA also gave birth to the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Areas of Emphasis in Occupational Health Psychology

As was discussed earlier, OHP can trace its roots to investigations of the impact of Taylor management principles on the emotional and physical health of workers. However, this early focus has broadened considerably in the last 25 years. During this time, there have been significant changes in the structure of work in both the United States and Europe. Many manufacturing jobs were lost and economies shifted toward service jobs. In the last 2 decades, corporate mergers and downsizing efforts left many workers needing to switch employment, if not careers, often accepting lower incomes, in their 40s and 50s—ages that previously were associated with stable employment and peak earning potential. Companies have moved away from making long-term commitments to employees, relying instead upon temporary workers and/or contractors. Correspondingly, there has been an increase in the number of self-employed people. All of these changes were accompanied by stress, both for workers losing or changing jobs and for those retaining employment, but needing to adapt to new contingencies.

Work Organization

In addition to the structural changes discussed above, to remain competitive, many employers significantly changed management systems, supervisory practices, and production processes. Among these changes are compressed work schedules, flexible work schedules, home-based work, lean management, and an increased reliance on technology. These practices are intended to increase the ability of companies to respond quickly and efficiently to changing production demands without compromising quality. However, employees are working longer and harder and often bear greater responsibility for outcomes, though not always with increased decision-making latitude. Learning new processes and new technologies places increased cognitive demands on workers, leading to stress that has been tied to negative health effects.

Gender

Women continue to make inroads into previously nontraditional occupations ranging from construction sites to corporate boardrooms. In addition to the stress of entering occupations whose cultures and practices have been shaped almost exclusively by men, working women must weigh the impact and timing of having children on career. Despite major changes in perceptions regarding gender roles, women continue to bear major responsibility for child rearing and household functioning, thereby increasing stress related to balancing the conflicting needs of work and family.

Aging Workers

The workforce is aging. In part, this shift simply reflects the demographics of the baby boom and in part people working longer, either by choice or by necessity. In Europe, this shift has been driven by declining birthrates. There are simply not enough replacement workers being born. Consequently, there is great interest in keeping older workers healthy and satisfied enough to remain working. In some European countries this has been a major factor in the development of OHP. Although older workers are more reliable, bringing the wisdom and skills of decades to jobs, they also tend to be less physically robust than younger workers. They are more sensitive to changes in the work environments such as extremes of temperature and poor lighting. In instances where an older person is working in a low-level service job (to supplement retirement income), supervisors are often years younger. This can led to stress when the older worker is subjected to stereotypes about the elderly or is held in low regard because of the unskilled nature of the work.

Race and Ethnic Diversity

It is estimated that by the year 2050, 15% of the American workforce will be Hispanic. Areas of the United States, such as the Southeast and the Midwest, that have not traditionally been destinations for Hispanic immigrant workers have experienced explosive growth in the size of their Hispanic communities. In addition to political issues and legal consequences related to some immigrants’ undocumented status, Hispanic immigrants in these “new settlement areas” are further socially marginalized and subject to exploitation due to lack of a Spanish-speaking public and/or social services infrastructure. These immigrants tend to be employed in the least desirable, poorest paid, and most dangerous occupations, so they are at increased risk to suffer from negative health consequences. However, even when working side by side with Americans, Hispanics immigrants suffer from significant occupational health disparities. For example, Hispanic immigrants working in construction are killed at 2-3 times the rate of American-born workers performing the same jobs. Contrary to popular perceptions, less than 1% of Hispanic immigrants work as day laborers. The remainder work for companies ranging in size from small businesses to international corporations.

Within the European Union, most legal barriers to the flow of workers from one country to another have been eliminated. Consequently, more prosperous economies have seen an influx of nonnative workers. For example, Ireland, with a population of less than 5 million, has the same proportion of normative workers as does the United States. Whereas the United States is challenged to simply meet the needs of Spanish speakers, Ireland must attempt to overcome barriers of language and culture for a half dozen nationalities.

Influencing Change

Although the rapidly changing world of work seems a moving target, there are many opportunities for OHP to influence change for both the employer and the individual. On the employer level, the spiraling of health insurance costs offers a strong economic argument for employers to redesign jobs and to develop interventions aimed at reducing work-related stress (and its associated illnesses). Employers also need help adjusting to an increasingly diverse workforce. On the individual level, workers are expected to take increasing responsibility for their career trajectories. Making a good initial choice of career represents solid primary prevention of work-related stress. However, many workers need assistance with adjusting to ongoing change in their jobs. Workers and employers need assistance in preventing new communication technologies from blurring the boundaries between work and home to the detriment of family life.

Reference:

  • Quick, J. C., & Tetrick, L. E. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of occupational health psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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