Occupational Psychology: So what exactly do you do???

what-do-you-doA significant part of my time involves running residential training courses. One of the perks of this is being fed seriously nice hotel food and enjoying very engaging dinner conversations with my delegates.  Recently, one of these conversations revolved around being grilled around “what exactly do you do?”. This, combined with a requirement that morning to clamber over and under several desks in pursuit of persuading my laptop and a projector to play nice with each other, got me thinking about that question.

So for those who’ve come across the term Occupational Psychology but not too sure what it means I thought I’d share my insights. I’d also like to dedicate this blog to my family who have good naturedly faced the ongoing challenge of trying to explain to people what their daughter/sister/niece/cousin does for a living for nearly 15 years.

So what exactly do you do?

In the simplest possible terms Occupational Psychology is about applying an understanding of people – what they do and why they do it – in the workplace, for the benefit of improving an organisation’s performance.  Now, I’m well aware that there are maybe some other, more formally ratified definitions out there, but hey I’m a practicing consultant and the reality is that my clients want to know how what I’m proposing will improve their bottom line.

The nice, some might say ‘fluffy’ side of this approach to applying an understanding of psychology, is that I help make sure the right people are selected into the right jobs and that they are happy and motivated, and with the right skills to do their job.  The hard business reality side of things is that from the organisation’s perspective it is making sure that people are performing as well as possible, which is in line with their strategic objectives.

Practically, what this means is that my day-to-day activities include:

  • Designing and applying assessment tools, such as assessment centre exercises
  • Creating personality questionnaires and ability tests
  • Designing and facilitating training programmes, covering topics such as leadership, performance management, communication, stress management
  • Organisational design and change
  • Creating in-house training materials

This, please note, is not a definitive list of what it means to be an Occupational Psychologist, and other Occ Pyschs (thought I’d help you get with the lingo). Friends of mine specialise in Ergonomics and Human Machine Interaction (HMI).  This includes for example, designing interfaces, i.e. should a button on a console be located at the top or bottom of the display, to the right or the left – yes, really! Now apply that to cockpit design of a fighter pilot, and that button controls the missiles, and suddenly this becomes a very important decision.

What do we not do?

Now the above explanation usually falls out the earlier part of the conversation where the well meaning party has tried to guess what an Occ Psych does.  Now without intending to be too mean they usually get it spectacularly wrong, so here’s a run down of some of the best guesses:

  • ‘So do you deal with crazy people in the workplace?’ Answer: No
  • ‘Can you read peoples’ minds?’. Followed by ‘Can you tell what I’m thinking right now?’, accompanied by either a look of genuine fear or knowing smile. Answer: No (but at this point I could have a good guess)
  • ‘Do people come and lay on your couch?’ Answer: Yes, but for strictly non-work reasons. Also, I travel a lot so having a couch with me just wouldn’t be practical
  • ‘Can you hypnotise people?’ Answer: Yes, but it’s not something I have a need for regularly
  • ‘Oh, so you a Psychologist – I’m a bit crazy, do you think you can sort me out?’ Answer: Possibly, but I’m not sure I’ve got that much time right now


  • ‘Can you read my palm?’ I’m not even dignifying that question with an answer

So there is a quick run down of what it means to be a practicing Occupational Psychologist. Now I should note that just as you might be slipping into a sense of comfort after finally getting your head around what we do, that this isn’t the only term we go by. Just to complicate things you might also hear us referred to as Business Psychologists, Organisational Psychologists, Industrial Psychologists, Work Psychologists, I/O Psychologists, and Applied Psychologists!

Now, suitably enlightened you can go spread the word…



One thought on “Occupational Psychology: So what exactly do you do???

  1. Pingback: Weekly Blog Roundup Ep. 2 – The Medical Culture Blog

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