How to Become an Occupational Health Psychologist


When agricultural society first transitioned into the industrial era, it was only natural that companies put material production first and the conditions of workers second. It made sense to prioritize that way, because it was believed that one could not have both. But today we know better.

Roughly a century of solid psychological research has proven that in order for businesses to thrive, its employees must do so first. Modern companies have started taking this to heart, and begun applying this principle to the workplace. However, it isn’t enough. Scores of workers and businesses from all sectors remain pained by the resulting stress and frustration of organizational dysfunction. They need psychological competence that can guide them to greener pastures. Will you answer that call?

What is Occupational Health Psychology?

OHP (Occupational Health Psychology) is a specialty in psychology which focuses on improving the safety and health of employees in the workplace through application of psychotherapeutic principles and behavioral change. This is a designation used in the UK, whereas in the US, the term I-O (Industrial-Organizational) Psychology is used.

OHP encompasses both research into employee health and safety, or application thereof in the workplace. OHP services may be part of an EAP (Employee Assistance Program). EAP’s typically contract with a workplace to provide short term psychological services to employees, and/or develop programs to improve employee health. OHP involves evaluating the formal, written procedures and policies in a work place, as well as how employees actually operate day to day, patterns of productivity, accident and illness rates in a workplace, employee morale, management style, and turnover. Based on this evaluation, a plan can be developed to reduce workplace injuries or illness, maximize productivity, improve morale and job satisfaction, and decrease turnover.

OHP can take dual perspective; the group processes within an organization can be the focus, or OHP may focus on individual employee issues in the context of the organization. This could include employees with addictions, depression, or family or marital issues which interfere with productivity, or could compromise the safety of other employees.

Ideally, OHP can provide the proverbial win-win situation, in which employees will be satisfied and productive, in a vibrant workplace where they are valued. In return, absenteeism, turnover, and performance problems are minimized, productivity is maximized, and management is happy.

Occupational health psychology is not synonymous with clinical, but does have a multitude of similarities. It too has health and well-being at its core.

What Does an Occupational Health Psychologist Do?

Occupational health psychologists (OHP’s) are a relatively new group of psychologists with expertise in the management of workplace stress and improving the quality of work-life. Through the application of psychological principles and interventions, they work to encourage a positive, healthy and safe work environment.

Some OHP’s remain in the academic setting. Here they are at the forefront of research and gather data using scientific research methods. Research tasks involve investigating ineffective or unhealthy working conditions from a theoretical perspective. Sometimes findings are published in academic journals. They are also educators and train future psychologists for a career in occupational psychology.

OHP’s are found in a variety of occupational settings from factories to corporate offices, from private business to government agencies. The primary role of the OHP is to manage the employee/organization relationship and employee mental health concerns. Upon collecting nuggets of valuable information, the OHP decipher the results using sophisticated methods of analysis. The psychologist may then apply them to the workplace in a fashion that increases the well-being of both workers and the organization.

Other responsibilities will vary based on the setting and can include assisting human resources, working with management regarding changes in the workplace environment, participating in project management or meeting with employees to address workplace wellness concerns.

OHP’s may assist with screening or assessment for job placement or performance. They gather information with various assessment tools including personality inventories, direct observation, or interviews. When new projects arise, the OHP may design interventions to gather relevant data for new or existing projects. Task analysis or time management studies provide useful data for the project management team to consider.

Designing programs to improve the employee’s quality of work-life and promote safety, health and general wellness is a key task for the OHP. They may work with groups of employees or with individuals.

Psychoeducational workshops focused on wellness topics, stress management or managing workplace aggression are common group activities. Working one-on-one, the OHP can help the employee address specific emotional or work-related wellness issues. Typical interventions might include teaching coping skills such as stress management techniques or communication strategies so that the employee can manage his/her own work-related wellness.

The OHP is also at the forefront when addressing behavioral issues occurring in the workplace such as aggression or harassment. Interventions might include threat of violence assessment, brief counseling, mediation or referral to an outside resource.

What are the Education and Licensing Requirements to Become an Occupational Health Psychologist?

Occupational health psychologists are able to begin working with just a Master’s degree, although it can limit their opportunities compared to a Ph.D. The desired pathway to work is through specialization in industrial-organizational psychology. This area is also aimed at applying psychological know-how to a workplace setting. If you do decide to go this road, keep in mind that competition is fierce for admission into an industrial-organizational Master’s program. Excellent grades, relevant courses in psychology, and impressive curricular activities are recommended.

Although not as common, some occupational health psychologists venture into running their own independent practices. These professionals must obtain a license in all US states, and in the District of Columbia. How to obtain this license varies by state, and by type of position. Requirements that apply to all are a doctorate in psychology, a lengthy internship, and professional work experience. Passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology is also standard (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Where Does an Occupational Health Psychologist Work?

  • Private businesses
  • Independent practice
  • Academic and research institutes
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Government and private hospitals
  • Counseling and mental health centers
  • Government and private consultancy firms

What Qualities are Required for an Occupational Health Psychologist?

To be successful in this area, psychologists must harbor a passion and talent for emotional and social aspects of the job. They must be able to make clients feel comfortable. They must have a knack for decoding their expressions. They must also have communications skills in order to identify existing problems, and to resolve them. But that’s not all.

Beyond the virtues of intimate care, occupational health psychologists must master the art of effective cooperation. In this job, they are not just a traditional psychologist. They are also an organizer, coordinator, and decision-maker within the organization they operate. Being able to bridge emotional and social competence with organizational skill is therefore equally essential.

What is the Employment Outlook for Occupational Health Psychologist?

Most occupational health psychologists are trained as industrial-organizational ones, and that no doubt behooves them. Job growth in the industrial-organizational arena is projected at a staggering 35% for several years to come. This is well above not only the average projected growth rate of all US occupations. It is also head and shoulders above projected growth in psychology overall at 22% (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

As an occupational health psychologist, you may find work in any sector: government, private, or nonprofit (American Psychological Association).

What is the Salary for an Occupational Health Psychologist?

As mentioned repeatedly, most occupational health psychologists are essentially industrial-organizational. Using that as a yardstick, your salary in this concentration will range from about $55,000 to $122,000, according to the American Psychological Association. Add geographic location and work experience to the equation, and career prospects are even better (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Only you set the barriers of achievement in this occupation.

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