Delia Virga


Occupational health psychology (OHP) is an emerging special area of focus in the science and practice of psychology, being related to health psychology and deriving from organizational psychology. The focus of this subdomanin of psychology is healthy workplaces, defined as ones in which people use their talents and gifts to achieve high performance, high satisfaction, and well-being. (Adkins, 1995; Quick, Quick, Nelson, & Hurrell, 1997, Principle 2, p. 151, apud Quick, 1999).

Keywords: occupational health psychology, methodology, human resources, wellbeing
Address of correspondence: delia.virga[at]ohpedu.ro

>> Occupational health psychology: methodological approaches


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Psihologia sănătăţii ocupaţionale: abordări metodologice



Characteristics of the European approach in occupational health psychology

Methodological approaches of occupational psychology

The link between human resources and occupational health psychology

Well-being vs. organizational health




Occupational health psychology (OHP) is an emerging special area of focus in the science and practice of psychology, being related to health psychology and deriving from organizational psychology. The focus of this subdomanin of psychology is healthy workplaces, defined as ones in which people use their talents and gifts to achieve high performance, high satisfaction, and well-being. (Adkins, 1995; Quick, Quick, Nelson, & Hurrell, 1997, Principle 2, p. 151, apud Quick, 1999).

Although concerns about occupational psychology are old, not until the 90′s that Occupational Health Psychology (OHP) emerged as a novel psychological specialty, both in  the U.S. and Europe, especially in Scandinavia (Quick, 1999). Thus, we can say that OHP has a future as generous as it is its short history. According to the definition of the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NISOH; ro.: Institutul Naţional American de Sănătate şi Securitate Ocupaţională), Occupational Health Psychology concerns the application of psychology to improving the quality of work life and to protecting and promoting the safety, health and well-being of workers. In addition to this definition are necessary some additional clarification. First, the term health is used in OHP as a positive concept that includes social and personal resources, as well as physical abilities. In accordance with the vision of the World Health Organization, established after the Second World War, OHP addresses health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not just as the absence of a disease or infirmity. Second, OHP is not only concerned with employees, but also examines the issue of unemployment and issues related to work-home interference. Third, OHP takes into account four strongly interconnected levels of analysis. Thus, we have 1) the individual level – ways of coping, different symptoms, etc., 2) job environment – work overload, lack of job control, etc. 3) organizational level – role conflict, organizational unfairness, etc. 4) external level – life events, home stress. And last but not least, OHP is both a scientific discipline and applied field. OHP operates at the intersection of science and society, which means that the future of this new specialization is shaped by both the internal dynamics at the scientific level as well as by the developments in the society at large.

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Characteristics of the European approach in occupational health psychology

To be able to distinguish clearly the direction of OHP in Europe, according to Cox (2000), first we have to identify those aspects of education, research and practice that are diagnostic of, or in a lesser way characterize, the European approach. In discussions in Copenhagen (Cox, Griffiths, şi Rial-Gonzalez, 1999, apud Cox, 2000), in Baltimore (Cox, 1999) and, most recently, in Porto (Cox, 2000), a number of such characteristics were identified and explored, these characteristics being presented hereinafter. But, the question of whether they describe occupational health psychology in general or whether they are diagnostic of the European approach remains open. It is a question that can only be answered by international debate and by evidence.

From contemporary discussions, it would seem that occupational health psychology in Europe has-or aspires to-the following characteristics:

It is an applied science and is evidence-driven. Howewer, it has to explore and exploit a wide variety of methodologies and develop new philosophies and methods for applied science, particularly in relation to evaluation, and explore new ways of combining existing methods. This requires a deep understanding of the philosophy and methods of applied science and a creative and flexible way of approaching these subjects.

At the heart of much research, education and practice in OHP in Europe is a ‘problem-solving approach’, with the occupational health psychologist cast in the role of general problem solver.

It recognizes that occupational health is a multidisciplinary area

and is willing to engage in a constructive dialogue and team-working with all contributing disciplines. This requires that European occupational health psychologists are aware of and recognize the contributions that can be made by others, and can appreciate their intellectual positions, knowledge and practical skills. In a somewhat similar way, it recognizes that occupational health is a living subject that affects the working lives of real people working with, or for, real organizations, and the healthiness of those organizations. This requires knowledge of work and work organizations as well as an understanding of working people. It requires recognition of the important roles played by governments and by representatives of employers and employees, and a willingness to work with these groups.

Occupational health psychologists are committed to participative methods of education, research and practice in which students, participants, workers and managers are educated and involved actively in whatever activities they carry out. To sign on to such an approach, there must be some recognition of the contribution that the other parties-the students, research participants, workers and managers-can make, and a recognition of their knowledge and expertise.

Occupational health psychologists are loyal to intervention theory, and this might be made manifest in a variety of different ways and at several different levels (for example, the systems-level and individual-level). This interventions may also vary in form from, say, policy changes through organizational re-design to employee training and counselling. In Europe, is a legal framework for the objectives and practice of OHP that also influences education and research. This is vested in European law for safety and health at work, and also in employment law, the law on discrimination and disability, and on mental health.

Some of these characteristics are more obvious in discussion and aspiration than in practice. Some are more obvious in some regions of Europe or in some countries than others. Some are shared by other countries outside Europe, and some may be in the future. Some may prove unique to Europe-such as, for instance, the relationship between our discipline and the legal framework in Europe.

Looking forward, OHP in Europe must reflect the beliefs, commitments and the intellectual history of Europeans, modified as appropriate by lessons learnt and arguments generated elsewhere. A balance is required between developing what is good from Europe and incorporating what is better from elsewhere. We must remain open to new ideas and collaborations, and, at the same time, feel evangelical about what we have to offer. In the last analysis, there can only be one occupational health psychology, and this must be truly international. This is, obviously, part science and part politics (Cox, 2000).

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Methodological approaches of occupational psychology

Research on occupational psychology is extending from descriptive to intervention research, so Schaufeli (2004) identified five types of research specific to this area, presented in the table below:

Table 1. Types of occupational psychology Research (adapted after Schaufeli, 2004)

   Explanatoryresearch  Descriptiveresearch  Tooldevelopment  Interventionresearch  Organizationalchange
Orientation Theory guided

Problem focused

Process Empirical cycle Non-cyclical

Regulatory cycle



Empirical-analytical, action research, casestudies
Purpose Generatingknowledge Fact finding Designof tools Evaluation Plannedchange
Publicationmedium Scientificjournal

Professional and scientific journal

Target group Scientificcommunity



Explanatory research focuses on producing knowledge related to psychological mechanisms and processes. This type of research belongs to fundamental research domain and follows the process of empirical cycle that starts with the formulation of a hypothesis, the collection of data and ends with the statistical testing of the hypothesis. Results of such research are published in scientific journals and discussed in the scientific community.

Traditionally, a strong focus exists in OHP on job stress research that uses explanatory models that include psychosocial risk factors as causal agents. Examples of such research that study the effects of job demands and lack of job resources on employee health and well-being are the Job- Demands Control Model, the Role Stress Model, and the Person-Environment Fit Model. (Cooper,1998).

Another approach based on explanatory models uses notions from organizational psychology (organizational justice, psychological contract) to explain absenteeism, sickness, turnover, organizational commitment, and job satisfaction (Folger & Cropazano, 1998; Rousseau, 1995). Other approaches, based on social exchange mechanisms try to explain cardiovascular disease (Siegrist’s Effort-Reward Imbalance Model, 1998) or job burnout (Schaufeli’s Reciprocity Model, 2004).

A third stream of explanatory research stems from experimental psychology and focus on the cognitive, energetic, and motivational processes that are involved in mental workload, performance, and recovery. These approaches specifically focus on occupational fatigue and on the resulting human errors and accidents.

Current trends in explanatory research attempts to substantiate and develop explanatory models of occupational stress. It also seeks reconsideration of personality factors related to employees. Social and organizational approach of OHP can benefit from recent research on the role of emotions in the workplace, the collective values of employees’ psychological health and well-being. Experimental research may include new topics such as workplace underload and boredom.

Descriptive research focuses on producing “facts”, that is, on the accurate description of a particular state of affairs. This type of research is problem focused, typically using a particularized design, although some descriptive research can also be longitudinal, using multiple data-waves. In this research is used the empirical-analytical methodology,  that stresses the systematic acquisition and evaluation of accurate, objective and verifiable information about a situation. The results that are published in professional journals, and may be used for policy and management decisions.  The main contribution of this type of research has been the identification of a set of job stressors. For example, Warr (1987) used this information to formulate his “Vitamin Model” that stipulates that a healthy workplace should include nine “vitamins” (including opportunity for control, opportunity for skill use, physical security, a valued social position, etc.).

Current trends in descriptive research aimed at using at large-scale (epidemiological studies) of some valid measures for occupational health. An example is the “Maastricht Cohort Study” that followed for five years more than 10,000 workers, using every four months, validated measures such as General Health Questionnaire and Maslach Burnout Inventory. Such studies provide very useful information on the prevalence and incidence of  factors that generate burnout and stress. Demonstrating clear links between health, safety and psychological well-being at work, on the one hand and objective parameters (related to employee performance or financial results of the company), on the other hand, is an area that will bring many benefits to OHP.

The tools development for practical use in OHP settings constitutes a separate area of research that is focused on practical problems. This type of research follows the progress of an algorithm that starts with the formulation of a problem and then moves to the design of some tool in the form of a procedure, protocol, technique, guideline, to solve that problem. Next, the tool is implemented and to what extent the initial problem has been solved is evaluated. Tools might be developed using empirical-analytical methodology (e.g. psychometric test development), case studies (e.g. protocols), or action research strategies (e.g. job redesign). Their results are communicated in professional and scientific journals.

The major OHP tools that have been developed are assessment tools, risk management procedures, and intervention protocols. The most widely used assessment tools are organizational stress surveys that focus on identifying psychosocial risk factors and job-related strains at organizational level. Among the most popular these kinds of tools are:

Occupational Stress Indicator (OSI) developed in the UK (Cooper, Sloan, & Williams, 1998),

Occupational Stress Questionnaire, developed in Finland (Elo, Leppanen, Lindstrom, 1992)

Questionnaire on the experience and evaluation of work, developed in The Netherlands (Van Veldhoven si alţii, 2002)

Generally speaking, these surveys are not suited for individual psychological assessment. One of the very few standardized tests that can be used for individual assessment is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Schaufeli et al., 2001).

Another type of OHP tools are risk management procedures. These procedures include various stages (assessment, planning and implementation of measures, and evaluation and feedback).  The importance of developing standardized tools is obvious in cross-national, across different samples epidemiological research. Furthermore, the development of a system that would allow calculating the financial costs of sickness absenteeism, turnover, poor motivation, job dissatisfaction, burnout, etc., would make OHP an area that cannot be ignored by management.

Intervention research focuses on the evaluation of interventions, both in terms of outcomes (Are the objectives achieved?) and process (What went well and what went wrong?). This type of research is problem focused and uses a wide range of empirical analytical methods, including experimental or (quasi)experimental research designs. Results of intervention research are communicated in professional journals or scientific journals.

A paradox exists between the popularity of interventions and the number of published intervention studies on the other. For example, stress-management training is booming, but research on its effectiveness is scarce. It has to be considered that experimental intervention research is difficult to conduct in the organizational environment.

Organizational change focuses on processes that change the organization into a healthier environment (for instance by implementing the work “vitamins” ) and is problem focused, usually directed towards decreasing sickness absenteeism rates, preventive measures, fostering an adequate safety climate, etc.  Typically, action research strategies are used in which researchers feed back their results during the process of organizational change. Only few organizational change projects are documented, most of them being reported in the form of case studies. After analyzing 11 European case studies, Kompier and Cooper (1999) identified five key factors for success:

1. the use of a stepwise systematic approach;

2. an adequate diagnosis or risk analysis;

3. a combination of work-directed and worker-directed measures;

4. a participative approach that involves workers and middle management;

5. top management support.

Although the practical relevance of organizational change projects is obvious, their scientific contribution remains questionable especially when the evidence is purely descriptive or anecdotal.

In conclusion, each method has advantages and disadvantages, being eligible for the selection according to the theoretical model, research objectives or the type of diagnosis and intervention we plan to implement. Peculiarities of each specific type of OHP research generates a greater efficiency in the study of occupational health specific problems.

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The link between human resources and occupational health psychology

The relationship between human resources management and occupational health psychology has been built on the stage of evolution of knowledge in organizational psychology in general and occupational health psychology in particular. One of the main assumptions underlying the transformations of the content in the sphere of occupational health psychology is related to the fact that recent developments in this area can contribute to changes in human resource management policies. If organizations believes that employees are the most valuable investment, it demonstrates not only their interest on their performance (promoted by the human resources management), but also on health and wellbeing (promoted by the occupational health psychology).

The bridge between occupational psychology and human resource management has become current when the scientific community in the field of occupational health psychology focused not only on the negatives, leading to illness, absenteeism and job dissatisfaction, but also positive aspects that improve employees’ quality of life at work and promote health, safety and wellbeing (Tetrick & Quick, 2003). Also, human resources management  undergos a radical transformation towards human capital management, in which the priority is investment in the identification, development and retention of talent in organizations, of those employees with potential and motivation for professional and personal development.

Thus, it was required researchers and practitioners to focus on distinct models of well-being in organizations, that focus on occupational health. Practical objectives of the new guidelines in occupational psychology and human resource management are similar: optimizing the work of organization and employees. Interests of the two fields are different: occupational psychology promotes the health of the employees, and human resource management promotes the health of the organization (Schaufeli & Salanova, 2007). Acting convergent, both areas can benefit: what is beneficial for health and wellbeing of employees is also beneficial for organization, and vice versa. The best strategy to achieve the common goal (e.g., healthy employees in a healthy  and successful organization), consists in integrating the new position of occupational psychology and human capital management. New concepts of occupational psychology (such as work involvement, psychological comfort, etc.) can play a key role in coming true of this coalition because, on the one hand, require a positive definition of workers health and, on the other hand, the associated positive benefits which contribute decisively to organizational success (eg, high-quality performance, low absenteeism and organizational commitment).

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Well-being vs. organizational health

The literature on the topic of health and wellbeing in organizations covers different perspectives on this issue: physical (Cooper Kirkaldz and Brown, 1994), psychological (Cartwright and Cooper, 1993) and mental (Anderson and Grunert, 1997). The broad spectrum that ranges from these perspectives have generated a variety of definitions for organizational well-being and health.

CIPD (2007) defines wellbeing as creating an environment to promote a state of contentment which allows the  employees to flourish and achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and their organisation.

Well-being is a broader biopsychosocial construct that includes: physical, mental and social health. This dimension in organization is beneficial for the people inside the organization as well as for those outside it; it makes the organization more productive, attractive and responsible for the employees condition.

More and more organizations worldwide, but also in Romania, are working to create a balance between maximizing productivity and risk of burnout for employees which may make errors that involve costs or resignations. Understanding of a holistic approach which underpins the well-being, and developing initiatives related to this issue and their integration with other HR policies can provide an approach to support this balance .

Employees’ well-being have physical, mental and emotional sides of employees’ health in complex interaction acting to affect people (Dejoy and Wilson, 2003 cited by Grawitch, Gottschalk and Munz, 2006).

The difference between health and well-being lies in the area that covers each of the two concepts, in organizational context. The term health refers to physical and physiological symptoms in a medical context (such as diseases diagnosis). Applying it in the organizational context, the emphasis is on physiological and psychological indicators that are used to assess the health of employees. Wellbeing is a broader concept, referring to the person as a whole. Besides health, wellbeing includes life experiences (life satisfaction, joy, happiness, etc.), and in organizational context includes general work-related experiences (job satisfaction, attachment, etc.) and specific dimensions (satisfaction towards colleagues or pay).

The theme of health and well-being is very important for organizational practice, for several reasons. First, the individuals’ experiences at work (physical, emotional, mental, social) have direct consequences on him. Moreover, these experiences generate effects on the individual beyond the workplace. The interference between work and private life is a very fashionable topic today in organizational and work psychology. Secondly, it increased the interest and importance of other factors related to the work and which affect the health and well-being of the worker. These include aggression and violence in the workplace, sexual harassment, workplace dysfunctional behaviors. Thirdly, health and wellbeing is an important issue that has consequences on the individual. Both researchers and organizations’ managers recognize that health and well-being can harm both workers and the organization. For example, workers with poor health have significantly lower results, may take wrong decisions, are more liable to absenteeism. For the individual, such a situation induces physiological, psychological and / or emotional costs.

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On the basis of those outlined above, we can assert that occupational health psychology is known both in the European and the United States as a discipline of psychology and have as a general goal to promote change at individual, organizational level or work-family interface in order to improve working conditions and, consequently, performance at work. Particulary, occupational health psychology aimes at improving the efficiency at organizational or group level and improving job satisfaction at the individual level (Millward, 2008).

OHP regards the assessment and intervention at human health component of the company, at physical and psychological level as well as at individual and collective performance, and to can rest on objective data collected by specific methods. OHP is a managerial challenge and can be used successfully in developing a management strategy to lead to the production, development and implementation of a healthy work environment in the company. A psychologist specialized in occupational health psychology should deal with issues related to organizational consulting, in particular, with problem diagnosis, followed by the design, implementation and evaluation of solutions leading to improvement of organization efficiency and increase adaptability to change and develop of the organization. Also, specialized OHP psychologist is a involved in issues related to group work and development of effective work-teams, using profeesional training methods. Psychologist specialized in OHP is concerned about personnel selection and assessment, as well as vocational orientation. In addition to ergonomics, which aim the improvement of the interface between individual and work environment, it adds elements of research, which help OHP discipline to develop as a science. In Romania, this specialization is not yet recognized, being integrated into other disciplines, but without a clear content and status among the scientific community. Hopefully, as this discipline of psychology will evolve and will gain notoriety in Europe, it will have a positive impact also on our country’s psychologists, and implicitly on organizations that activate in Romania.

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