Americans work—a lot. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 7.6 hours each weekday and 5.6 hours a day on weekends, even though just a few years ago working on the weekend was relatively rare.
Predictably, as work hours have ballooned, people are experiencing more stress, are more prone to accidents and are more likely to fall prey to stress-related cardiovascular disease and other health issues.
Helping to address such issues are occupational health psychologists, who are illuminating the need for people to balance work and play while also helping employers design healthy workplaces, says Leslie Hammer, PhD, a Portland State psychology professor and director of the school's occupational health psychology graduate training program.
"Psychologists can help us better understand the links between job stress and health and how that relates to psychology, safety and illness outcomes," she notes.
Why it's hot
Companies increasingly appreciate occupational health psychologists' ability to benefit their bottom lines.
"If you don't have healthy workers, you won't be productive," says Laura Wheeler Poms, a George Mason University adjunct professor of management. "If they're not productive, you aren't making money."
Indeed, a few companies are making a business out of corporations' increased focus on health. For instance, Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems in Fort Wayne, Texas, offers organizational health consulting, which has led the company to hire OHPs en masse. The psychologists assess companies' health and safety standards, then work to improve businesses' communication, employee involvement and social health across all levels. They also fine-tune human resources' risk management and operational objectives.
What you can do
Many occupational health psychologists pursue tenure-track academic positions—either in industrial/organizational or health psychology programs—where they conduct research on topics such as the health implications of stressful work as well as the corresponding social and economic outcomes, says Hammer. They also assess how well organizational interventions, including employee-assistance and work-family programs, are working. While sometimes these findings languish in academic journals, OHPs are increasingly putting their knowledge to practice by increasing public awareness of these issues through the Society for Occupational Health Psychology and other professional organizations, Hammer says.
Some OHPs work in government and private industry. Nanette Yragui, PhD, for example, works for Washington state's interdisciplinary Safety and Health Assessment and Research Program for Prevention office housed in the Department of Labor and Industries. There, she conducts applied research on occupational health and safety issues requested by labor and industries staff as well as business associations and industry groups.
Yragui, who entered Portland State's OHP program after her father died due to workplace chemical exposure, is working on a project to reduce workplace violence that occurs in Washington's two state psychiatric hospitals.
As the office's lone occupational health psychologist, she brings an important perspective to workplace safety.
"I'm the one who asks, 'Is there a psychological climate for violence? Are there policies and practices to prevent violence? Is the organization ready for change?'" says Yragui.
Other OHPs work as consultants for companies such as Big Y supermarkets. Or they conduct research for companies, including Liberty Mutual, on such issues as the causes of occupational injuries and the best ways to assist disabled workers.
Because the field is so new, there is little data on occupational health psychology salaries. But since most OHPs hold an I/O degree, their salaries are similar to other I/O psychologists—an average $55,000 starting salary after graduation for assistant professors, about $66,000 for associate professors, $80,000 for government research positions and $122,000 for those entering the private sector fields like consulting, according to the APA 2007 Salaries in Psychology survey.
How to get there
Start with a degree, certification or specialization in OHP, says Poms. Prospective students can visit the Society for Occupational Health Psychology online at www.sohp-online.org for a list of OHP programs in the United States. This list is likely to grow in coming years, as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and APA recently hammered out a five-year cooperative agreement that enables 12 universities, including Bowling Green, Portland State and Tulane, to develop OHP curricula. Such curricula include training in epidemiology and environmental health.
Graduate students may want to forge relationships within their university's global and community health department, because OHPs often work with public health departments, says Poms. Business courses may also prove helpful, she adds, because they highlight the issues facing organizations and workers. Similarly, classes that delve into human resources issues provide future OHPs with invaluable insight into the inner workings of benefits and other employee-support programs.
The field offers an opportunity to use empirical data to solve practical problems, says Christopher Cunningham, PhD, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga I/O health psychology professor.
"There is a wealth of students who want to use psychology to help people outside of a clinical setting," he says. "And the next preeminent domain in adulthood is the workplace."
While the newness of the field means all kinds of opportunities are wide open, says Poms, it can also create challenges. "Because it's so new and it's not health psychology and it's not I/O psychology, a lot of people don't understand what we do."
As a result, occupational health psychologists may be required to prove their value to potential employers.
But such trailblazers are easing the way for the next generation of OHPs, says Carrie Bulger, PhD, a psychology professor at Quinnipiac University.
"Increasingly there are more research-based and practice-based papers on work and well-being," she says.
By Zak Stambor
Zak Stambor is a writer in Chicago.
Letters to the Editor
- Write Us