28 June 2008

Study - Psychological harm at work and the role of the Organisational Psychologist

Gina McCredie MAPS
Chair, APS College of Organisational Psychologists

Organisational psychologists focus on the study of behaviour in the workplace, and, like all psychologists, bring a range of approaches and tools which can scientifically measure and improve behavioural outcomes. Our role is to design effective and sustainable organisational structures, improve performance in teams and management practices, establish robust recruitment practices, diagnose complex problems as well as foster effective and resilient behaviours at all levels within organisations. This includes managing the consequences of psychological harm in the workplace, which are not limited to the organisational psychologist in terms of management or treatment.
Psychological harm comes in many forms: bullying and harassment, intimidation, badly designed jobs, lack of supervisor support, interpersonal conflict, poorly managed change whether it is in the form of a job change or a total organisational change, sexual harassment and so on. Many types of harm do not finish when or if the employees leave work. Posttraumatic stress disorder is common among victims of psychological bullying, requiring years of psychological support and treatment. While legislation has been introduced in Australia to raise awareness and reduce the incidence of harm, it is unfortunately a key feature of many workplaces in subtle and insidious forms. So what can organisational psychologists do to help workplace leaders and managers prevent these behaviours?

Fortunately, many workplaces are now actively recruiting organisational psychologists to fill roles where in the past our involvement has been ad hoc and piecemeal, as we have often only been invited to address issues once the problem has reached crisis point. This in part has been due to a lack of understanding by our workplace colleagues about the role of organisational psychologists in the workplace and how we can help.

Much has been made over recent years of workplace alignment - ensuring an organisation's structures, systems and people skills are aligned with its strategy, vision and values. While an important feature of improved organisational performance, true alignment remains in many instances only rhetoric, as management practices and policies do not necessarily produce the behavioural change sought after. Organisational psychologists can work with organisations to see that employees have the best mechanisms in place (training, coaching, the capacity to negotiate, and so on) to support them being able to attain their performance goals where possible. If this is not possible, a job and skill analysis can be undertaken to determine a different approach for attaining the organisations goals other than keeping an employee in a role that they are simply not able to perform.

Interestingly, the cost to business and employers of turnover, absenteeism and workcover fees as a result of poor management practices is constantly reported, but still we find employers in the courts because they have not carried out the due diligence required to prevent such behaviour. However, there is a growing number of enlightened employers who are emphasising that workplace behaviours which are not consistent with their policies and identified values will result in either the employee being disciplined or dismissed. Further, these employers include as part of employees' performance criteria that they are expected to support the organisation's values and policies as part of their day-to-day behaviour. Managers and employees are increasingly getting the message that results are not to be achieved at any cost - how results are achieved is as important as what results are achieved.

The College of Organisational Psychologists has over the past six months outlined a plan of work to raise awareness within organisations of our members' contribution to organisational wellbeing. Our vision is evident in our five key streams of work:
  1. Growth: We attract members by being a thriving, forward thinking, and professional community
  2. Reach: We are a globally networked practitioner and academic profession
  3. Influence: We influence business, media and the government through our strong brand and value proposition
  4. Innovation: We strive to provide great services to our members, and we are disciplined and professional in our administration and governance of the College
  5. Capability: We support our members' growth through world class continuing professional development.

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