Academic Articles

The psychology of work: What do Industrial-Organisational Psychologists do at work?

Jul 29, 2020 | By Ashley Motene
The psychology of work: What do Industrial-Organisational Psychologists do at work?

It would seem that it has taken something as societally significant as the COVID-19 pandemic for people across the world to appreciate the need and role of psychology. This seems to have been revealed by the mental health and wellbeing impact of the pandemic on people’s lives and the livelihood of communities. 

Indeed, the science and art of psychology is broad in its application to all areas of life and work in societies. Broadly speaking, people tend to have a better idea of what clinical, educational and counselling psychology entail. These are more commonly known subfields of psychology and are often aspired to by many students seeking to embark on a career in psychology without realising the breadth of applied psychology. There are other ways in which psychology can be practiced such as research psychology which provides a professional training opportunity to become a psychologist in South Africa. There are options to train and work as a psychometrist or registered counsellor also under the Health Professions Council of South  Africa (HPCSA), with forensic psychology and neuropsychology being emergent category that the HPCSA will give guidelines on professional training and registration as the categories are formalised in South Africa.

In this article, the focus will be on another subfield of psychology which is that of industrial-organisational psychology, sometimes referred to as just industrial psychology or organisational psychology and even, management psychology in some countries. 

“HRM can be viewed as a people management field with a variety of roles and a field that requires formal training as competency development is key in the HRM field.”

Ashley Motene, Industrial Psychologist

The relevance of applied psychology in the workplace should not be surprising,  considering the complexities linked to our experience of work-related needs and expectations. In addition, the extent to which we give of ourselves, our time and energy to working in our societies creates an interdependent context that requires guided facilitation. It is a continuous exchange of skills across workplaces, applying work-related experiences, crafting careers and people working together in response to socio-economic human needs.

The interlink between HRM and Industrial-Organisational Psychology

Industrial-organisational psychology is often misguidedly confused with or alienated from human resource management (HRM). The two disciplines are aligned and practiced closely in workplaces but apply different insights to the same work contexts. In many instances, there are industrial-organisational psychologists who work in HRM roles. There are many individuals who have studied industrial psychology but chosen to work in the HRM field or other fields for that matter. On the other hand, some people have a related undergraduate career but do not want to pursue a career as an industrial psychologist. Work opportunities in both disciplines can be within an organisation (i.e. job position) or through consulting services offered to organisations across all industries.

Human Resource Management can be viewed as a people management field with a variety of roles and a field that requires formal training as competency development is key in the HRM field. HR practitioners can be seen as process drivers who facilitate people-related practices that are aligned to HRM and business strategies. HRM work is guided by models and approaches which allow for the stakeholder promise to be fulfilled by and to workers, teams, leaders, business units, shareholders, the organisation, the government and the community in which organisations operate. Essentially, employees are a key stakeholder. 

As guided by the practices and process driving of HRM teams, industrial-organisational psychologists explore the behavioural aspects of work and the deeper underlying psychological dynamics. We are able to identify evidence-based misalignments that hinder people engagement, performance, development or flow at work. Industrial-organisational psychologists bring psychological insights of work to co-create people-focussed solutions that lead to individuals, teams and organisations working well together to each achieve their potential. Whether researching, diagnosing, designing, implementing, facilitating development or measuring growth, the application of psychology at work requires competent and ethical professional practice as expected by the HPCSA’s ethical code of conduct, scope of practice for industrial psychologists, Bill of Rights, Mental Health Act, Employment Equity Act, Labour Relations Act and all other related acts. 

What kind of work can you do as an Industrial-Organisational psychologist?

Since industrial-organisational psychology focuses on understanding people in their work context and responding supportively to their needs as they work collectively, these are the areas of work that industrial-organisational psychologists professionally train to do:

  • Career psychology: provision of individual or group career counselling; personal or leadership development; mentoring; coaching guided by career assessments (psychometric and qualitative) and workshops.
  • Wellness and Wellbeing: mental health advocacy;  support of organisational wellness and worker wellbeing as it relates to diversity, inclusion, equality support at work [linked to discrimination (e.g. gender, disability, racial), workplace bullying or violence]; stress- and burnout-related support; work-life integration assistance; psychoeducation focussed on work-related psychosocial health (e.g. adapting working conditions best support workers with living with a disability; HIV/Aids, occupational injuries or illnesses and promoting safety behaviour). Working in collaboration with other psychology professionals to address work-related psychopathology that requires referral (e.g. performance anxiety or depression). 
  • Organisational psychology: designing contextualised learning programmes; organisation structures and ergonomics; understanding and enhancing group or team functioning (high-performance preparation, strategy development, conflict resolution or team development); organisational change, development and effectiveness (OD); improving employee engagement, organisational climate and culture using relevant metrics like surveys, research and support platforms.  
  • HR Psychology: supporting job analysis, recruitment and selection with psychological insights, diagnosis and intervention with processes that lend themselves to assessment of potential, good fit; performance management and people development at all organisational levels, across business areas and differing employee experiences of work.  
  • Psychometric Testing and Psychological assessment: conducting competency-based job profiling, assessment process design, assessment administration of psychometric assessments within the scope of practice; competency-based assessment/interviewing/training; interpretation of assessment results; integrated report writing; and verbal provision of psychometric assessment results for selection, personal, career or leadership development reasons. 

How do you become an industrial-organisational psychologist?

Whilst there aren’t specific high school subjects that you must have done to study industrial psychology, the minimum entrance requirements of the institution you want to study with will be used as a requirement to study a bachelor degree or qualification that will lead to graduating with an NQF level 7 (equivalent of a 3 year degree). 

In order to become an industrial psychologist in a South African context, you need to obtain a Master’s degree specialising in Industrial or organisational psychology. It is thus advisable to include industrial psychology as a major in your undergraduate studies. After completing the coursework and research dissertation at a Masters level (NQF level 9), you will need to complete a 12-month supervised internship in an organisational setting working as an intern industrial psychologist. Once you have competently completed your internship, you will be required to write the HPCSA board exam which has a 70% pass mark and officially register with the HPCSA as an Industrial Psychologist if you want to practice in South Africa. 

The broader community of practice

There are various bodies providing professional support, networking and continuous development opportunities with other industrial-organisational psychologists. Internationally, one such body is the SIOP. In South Africa, the Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology in South Africa (SIOPSA) provides professional support to industrial-organisational psychologists in ways that contribute to the growth of the subfield in their communities. SIOPSA has been facilitating student career webinars during this pandemic which allows you to hear from industrial psychologists sharing their career journeys. So whether working as entrepreneurs offering services, in business settings, psycholegal contexts, in government institutions or departments, in academia or educational institutions, in social research contexts or community-based organisations, psychology is at work.

Whilst it is not possible to become an industrial psychologist in South Africa if you have only studied HRM or a psychology degree only, there are options to work in related contexts. Furthermore industrial psychology is classified and sometimes applied differently depending on the country you choose to work in. HRM and Coaching are sound alternatives if you do not want to become an industrial-organizational psychologist. You can learn more about the future of working in HRM is likely to entail in an article that I wrote about How 4IR is changing the teaching and practice of HR

SACAP offers a variety of management and leadership programmes in:

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