Most people spend their entire adult lives working. Yet psychology has "done relatively little practical research into how our work experience affects our health, safety and overall philosophy of life," believes Michael Colligan, PhD, of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Turning that around is the reason Colligan and 27 other educators, researchers and practitioners gathered in Tampa, Fla., in late November to discuss the content of occupational health psychology training programs and to propose specific steps to advance the field of occupational health psychology.

The stakeholders--from multiple disciplines and multiple countries--explored mechanisms to shape the education and training of behavioral scientists who will enter the field of occupational health psychology (OHP).

History of OHP

In an attempt by the psychology community to bring the expertise and resources of psychologists to the occupational safety and health field, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and APA launched a series of initiatives throughout the 1990s to promote OHP (see Milestones in the history of occupational health psychology).

Among their top goals were convening four international conferences on work, stress and health and founding the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. NIOSH, together with labor and industry stakeholders, placed the topic of work organization among its highest research priorities, and implemented a program to fund postdoctoral training in OHP at major universities.

APA and NIOSH established a key piece of the OHP puzzle: a systematic program of graduate training in psychology to prepare psychologists to understand and influence factors affecting occupational safety and health. Today, 11 universities around the country receive funds from a cooperative agreement between APA and NIOSH to develop educational programs in occupational health psychology. Over the past four years, the faculty at these institutions have worked intensively to shape multidisciplinary curricula in work organization, stress and health for training students in psychology and other related fields. (Descriptions of these programs can be viewed on the OHP Web site at www.cdc.gov/niosh/ohp.html.)

The workshop in Tampa provided an appropriate forum for the faculty to share their experiences and formalize the future of education and training in occupational health psychology.

Preparing for the future

A key issue discussed at the Tampa conference was practice opportunities in OHP. "Opportunities for occupational health psychologists are as varied as the curricula," said Stacy Moran, PhD, an I/O psychologist with St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance. "There is not a single company who would not benefit from someone with this particular training. However, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what an occupational health psychologist is because they are skilled in so many areas."

Judith Holder, PhD, of Duke University Medical Center, agreed with this positive outlook for future professionals. She provided a list of 35 types of career opportunities for graduate students trained in occupational health psychology covering 10 potential domains of employment. Both Holder and Moran agree that students should blend their interests with the organization's needs to create unique positions that attend to the safety, health and well-being of the work force.

Another topic of discussion addressed the difficulty in getting research conducted on workplace well-being funded. University of South Florida professor Paul Spector, PhD, commented that the review panels of many of the national institutes do not consider workplace research to be "science."

He added that applied research is funded to a much greater extent by government funding agencies in other countries. Workshop participants from NIOSH emphasized that researchers should obtain feedback and guidance from project staff agency throughout the submission process. Researchers in OHP may also receive more favorable funding decisions if more individuals in OHP are appointed to various review panels. OHP researchers should also look to foundations and even labor organizations as additional funding sources.

The "exciting thing about OHP is it unites different areas of psychology, especially clinical counseling and industrial/organizational, that tend to go their separate ways," said Spector. For example, industrial/organizational psychology provides expertise in work organization and job design. In addition, counseling psychologist Jo-Ida Hansen, PhD, observed that the work of OHP psychologists is a natural extension of the historical emphasis of counseling psychology on career development, assessment, problem-solving for normal development issues, vocational psychology and therapeutic interventions. Health psychology and clinical psychology have also provided expertise on stress, health and mental health.

However, as NIOSH researcher J.J. Hurrell Jr., PhD, pointed out, there remains a disconnect between these fields of psychology and occupational health."Psychologists need to make the relevance of OHP clear to the field of occupational medicine by focusing on outcomes of public health significance," he added.

With their eye on OHP's future, the attendees listed several action steps:

  • Appoint a working group of psychologists to define the knowledge, skills and abilities most in demand to fulfill business needs in occupational safety and health.

  • Work to increase the number of OHP stakeholders appointed to editorial review panels of journals, grants and other research outlets.

  • Partner with other disciplines in occupational safety and health to plan research projects and submit proposals to funding agencies.

  • Recruit undergraduate and graduate students from multiple disciplines to complete the curricula in occupational health psychology.

  • Develop continuing-education courses on OHP topics to facilitate the cross-training of psychologists already licensed to practice in their states.

  • Appoint a working group of university faculty to review OHP course offerings to develop a subset of competencies that students should have.

  • Develop OHP courses aimed at nonpsychologists.

Meeting participants will tackle these and other goals by collaborating in working groups over the next year. APA and NIOSH hope to organize another meeting this summer to continue plans to formalize the discipline.

For more information on occupational health psychology, visit the OHP Web site at www.cdc.gov/niosh/ohp.html.

Heather Roberts Fox, PhD, is a faculty member at Towson University.