Positive Occupational Health Psychology

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Juliet Hassard, Tom Cox, and Ceri Jones, Birkbeck College, University of London

Positive Occupational Health Psychology

There is growing movement among researchers and practitioners in occupational health psychology for a more integrated and comprehensive approach to workplace health. This comprehensive approach aims to strike a balance between: one the one hand, preventing and managing hazards and occupational illness and disease in the workplace, whilst on the other hand, promoting those positive characteristics of the working environment that enhance human vitality, strengths and optimal functioning. Positive occupational health psychology is a movement that aims to bridge this gap in knowledge and practice. This article will introduce readers to the core concepts and practices underpinning the positive occupational health psychology movement.

Historical roots of positive occupational health psychology and key definitions

The field of Occupational Health Psychology has traditionally focused on examining and understanding risk factors in the workplace (e.g, job demands) and the resulting stress related diseases such as, burnout, mental ill-health, cardiovascular disease, to name a few. Consequently, the vast majority of work based interventions primarily on the identification and amelioration of occupational health problems and their associated risk factors, rather than or complemented by the measurement and reinforcement of positive aspects of work [1]. There is growing consensus amongst experts in the field that the promotion and cultivation of a healthy workplace must be underpinned by the prevention of occupational hazards and diseases through risk assessment and management, but this approach can be (and arguably should be) complimented by a concentrated focus on the promotion and cultivation of healthy workers and workplaces. Positive occupational health psychology is a movement that aims to bridge this gap in knowledge and practice.

The positive occupational health psychology movement has been informed and shaped by three schools of thoughts: positive psychology, positive organisational behaviour and positive occupational scholarship. A concise description and discussion of each school of thought is provided in the following sections. For more comprehensive overview of the historical roots of positive occupational health psychology see Bakker and Derk[1].

Positive Psychology

The early roots of positive psychology can be found in the academic work of several humanistic psychologists: namely, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm. All of whom developed theories and practices that had a concentrated focus on human happiness and vitality. Positive psychology began as a new field in the 1990’s, when Martin Seligman (considered the modern father of positive psychology) choose positive psychology as his presidential theme for his term as president for the American Psychological Association. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi [2] suggest that the aim of positive psychology “...is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from the pre occupation with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities (pg. 5).” Therefore, the central focus of this approach and doctrine is on cultivating positivity and, in turn, enhancing people’s strengths and virtues [3]. In short, positive psychology is an attempt to adopt a more open and appreciative perspective regarding human potentials, strengths, motives, and capacities [4].

Positive Organisational Behaviour and Positive Organisational Scholarship

A concentrated focus on the negative aspects of the workplace and their detrimental consequences on worker’s health and performance has dominated academic research, and, in turn, workplace policies and practices. Failing to recognise and capitalise on the positive aspects of the workplace is inappropriate and arguably a limited perspective; and as Turner, Barling, and Zacharatos [5] propose: “ ... it is time to extend our research focus and explore more fully the positive side, so as to gain full understanding of the meaning and effects of working (pg. 715).” The need for a more positive approach is clearly essential in psychology, but also unmistakably needed in management and business practices and policies [6]. Consequently, two schools of thought developed with a concentrated focus on the theoretical and practical cultivation of positive organisations: namely, positive organisational behaviour and positive organisational scholarship.

Positive organisational behaviour is defined as “...the study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed and effectively managed for performance improvement in today’s’ workplace” [7]. Typically, the central focus of positive organisational behaviour is aimed at understanding individual positive psychological conditions and human resource strengths that are – in one way or another – related to employee health, wellbeing and/ or performance enhancement [1] [8]. In contrast, Positive organisational scholarship is defined as “...the study of that which is positive, flourishing, and life-giving in organizations. Positive refers to the elevating processes and outcomes in organizations. Organizational refers to the interpersonal and structural dynamics activated in and through organizations, specifically taking into account the context in which positive phenomena occur. Scholarship refers to the scientific, theoretically derived, and rigorous investigation of that which is positive in organizational settings [9] (pg.731).”

In short, positive organisational behaviour is primarily interested with individual psychological states and human strengths that influence employee performance[7]; whilst positive organisational scholarship has a concentrated focus on the positive aspects of the organisational context that influence employee’s thriving and flourishing [10].

Positive occupational health psychology

Positive occupational health psychology (POHP) is heavily influenced by the positive psychology movement, and subsumes both approaches (positive organisational behaviour and positive organisational scholarship), whilst maintaining its own emphasis [1]. POHP is the scientific study of optimal functioning in the workplace, and aims to discover and promote the factors that allow employees and organisations to thrive and flourish. This approach has a particular interest in understanding how positive phenomena (e.g., contexts and personal resources) in the working environment can be used to protect against occupational risk, and, in turn, promote employee health and resiliency [1]. Therefore, the POHP approach acknowledges, and moreover strongly advocates, an integrated and comprehensive approaching to cultivating sustainable workplace health. More specifically, POHP approach suggests that cultivating sustainable workplace health requires a balanced perspective in: understanding and promoting the positive side of work life that aims to promote human and organisational strengths and optimal functioning, on the one hand; whilst continuing to consider the link between work related hazards and occupational ill health and diseases, and in their respective prevention and management, on the other hand.


Positive Occupational Health Psychology: Emerging topic areas

This section of the article aims to present some examples of key contemporary topic areas in POHP, drawing on the latest research: including, worker engagement, job resources, and psychological capital. These sections are aimed as brief introductions for the reader, and are not intended as comprehensive review of each topic area.

A Paradigm Shift: From burnout to work engagement

In a competitive global marketplace, organisations are increasingly aware that the quantity and quality of employee contributions is a vital business issue. Consequently, the focus of many modern organisations has begun to increasingly focus on the management of human capital, rather than traditional organisational structures that rely heavily rely on control and economic principles of cost reduction, efficiency and cash flow [8]. Indeed, Ulrich [11] aptly stated: “Employee contribution becomes a critical business issue because in trying to produce more output with less employee input, companies have no choice but to try and engage not only the body but the mind and soul of every employee” (pg. 125). Therefore, successful worker engagement cannot be achieved or effectively cultivated without organisational structures and management practices aimed at preventing poor performance, low motivation, ill health and disengagement [1].

Ironically, it was research on burnout that stimulated the empirical investigation of work engagement [1]. In contrast, to those workers who are ‘burnt out’, engaged employees have an energetic and effective connection with their work; and instead of viewing their work as stressful and demanding, they view it as challenging and fulfilling. Therefore, work engagement is viewed as a positive, affective-motivational state of fulfilment that is characterised by three dimensions: vigour, dedication and absorption [12]. Vigour is characterised by high levels of energy and mental resilience whilst working, the willingness to invest in one’s work, and persistence even in the face of challenges/ obstacles. Dedication refers to being strongly involved in one’s work, and experiencing a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride and challenge. Absorption is characterised by being happily engrossed in one’s work, whereby time passes quickly and one has difficultly in detaching oneself from work [1] [13]. It is important to highlight, that engaged employees are not the same as workaholics. In contrast to workaholics, engaged workers lack the typical compulsive drive to work. That is, for engaged employees work is fun, not an addiction; as concluded from a qualitative study among 15 engaged workers [14].

A growing body of research has demonstrated the association between work engagement and various health outcome including, low levels of anxiety and depression, excellent perceived health, low levels of burnout, positive emotions and quicker recovery from work; and organisational outcomes including frequency of sickness absenteeism, turn over, to name a few [1] [13]. A limited number of studies [15] [16] [17] have examined the relationship between work engagement and performance; however nevertheless, the results of these limited number of studies provides preliminary evidence of a positive relationship between these factors.

Job resources & work engagement

Job resources refer to those physical, social or organisational aspects of the job that may: (1) reduce job demands and the associated physiological and psychological costs; (2) be functional in achieving work goals; and (3) stimulate personal growth, learning and development [18] [19]. Previous studies in the literature have observed that job resources (such as, social support from colleagues and supervisors, performance feedback, skill variety, autonomy and learning opportunities) are positively associated with work engagement [20] [21] [22]. For example, Schaufeli and Bakker [23] found evidence for a positive relationship between three job resources (performance feedback, social support, and supervisory coaching) and work engagement among four samples of Dutch workers. This study was replicated in a sample of over 2000 Finnish teachers [24]. More specifically, the study of Finnish teachers found job control, information, supervisory support, innovative climate, and social climate were all related positively to work engagement.

A growing number of a recent longitudinal studies provided growing evidence of a causal effect of job resources on work engagement [25] [26] [27] [28]. For example, a longitudinal study conducted by Mauno, Kinnunen & Ruokolainen [25] found job resources better predicated work engagement, than did job demands over a two year period. More specifically, this study found job control and organisation based self esteem to be the best lagged predictors of work engagement.

The salient role of job resources in face of high job demands

Bakker & Demerouti [20] proposed the Job Demands – Resources model, this model postulates that working conditions can be classified into two general categories: job demands and job resources. It is hypothesised that job resources become of heightened significance and gain their motivational potential when employees are confronted with high job demands. More specifically, this theory postulates that the interaction of high job demands and high job resources is associated with work engagement; and conversely, high job demands paired with low job resources is associated with burnout.

A study conducted by Hakanen, Bakker and Demerouti [29] aimed to investigate the hypothesised interaction between high job demands and high job resources, in relation to predicting work engagement. This study hypothesised that job resources (e.g., variability in professional skills, peer contacts) are most beneficial in maintaining worker engagement under conditions of high job demands; as theorised in the Job Demands-Resource model. The study found variability in professional skills (job resource) boosted work engagement, when qualitative workload was high; and, in turn, mitigated the negative impact of qualitative workload on work engagement among a sample of Finnish dentists in the public sector. Conceptually similar findings were observed in a study of Finnish teachers [30]. The study with Finnish teachers found job resources acted as buffers and diminish the negative relationship between perceived job demands and work engagement. In addition, this study found job resources particularly influenced work engagement when teachers were confronted by with high levels of pupil misbehaviour (job demand). In particular, this study found supervisor support, innovativeness, appreciation and organisational climate were all important job resources for teachers that help them cope with demanding interactions with pupils.

Conversely, two studies have found supporting evidence for the notion that high job demands paired with low job resources predicts burnout levels among employees; as hypothesised in the Job Demand – Resource model. A study of 1000 Dutch teachers [31] found job resources buffered the impact of job demands on burnout. More specifically, the study found that job demands (such as, overload, emotional demands, and physical demands) did not result in burnout if employees experienced sufficiently high levels of job resources; such as, autonomy, performance feedback, social support, and/or coaching from supervisor. A study conducted in two homecare organisations found conceptually similar results [32]. This study found job demands to interact with job resources in predicting burnout. In particular, this study found three sources of job resources to be particularly important in buffering the respective impact of job demands (in the case of this study patient harassment): (1) autonomy, (2) social support, and (3) opportunities for career development.

Taken together, these findings provide supporting evidence that job resources may become more salient and gain their motivational potential when employees are confronted by high job demands. Moreover, job resources may play an important role in both promoting work engagement, but also mitigating the respective impact of high job demands and burnout. In conclusion, organisations may see additional benefits of placing greater emphasis on cultivating work engagement among workers; rather than isolated and reactionary approaching to addressing and preventing burnout. In a later section of this article, practical strategies to cultivate work engagement is presented and discussed.

Positive psychological capital

Seligman [33] first asked the question of whether there is such a thing as psychological capital, and if so what is it and how do we get it? He answer this question by suggesting that “when we are engaged (absorbed in flow), perhaps we are investing, building psychological capital”. In the context of the workplace, ‘flow’ can be restated in terms of personal and organisational goal alignment and job fit [34].

Positive psychological capital (also commonly referred to as PsyCap) refers to the positive and developmental state of an individual as characterised by high self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resiliency [35]. More specifically, Luthan and colleagues [36] define PsyCap by the presence of four key characteristics: (1) to have the confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the required effort to be successful in a challenging task; (2) making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future; (3) preserving toward goals, and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to be successful; and (4) finally, when surrounded by problems and challenges, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resiliency) to attain success [36]. Indeed, there is a growing literature that has systematically examined the relationship between PsyCap and various employee attitudinal, behavioural, and performance outcomes [1] [36].

PsyCap was been found to have a positive relationship with both job performance and job satisfaction among a sample of employees from a both service and manufacturing companies [36]. Furthermore, a stronger relationship was observed between overall PsyCap and satisfaction and performance; rather than each of the four individual components (hope, self-efficacy, optimism, and resilience) independently. This provides preliminary supporting evidence for PsyCap as a higher order construct. Luthan and colleagues [37] examined whether PsyCap can mediate the relationship between supportive organisational climate performance. The results of the study found a positive relationship between PsyCap and performance, and also found that PsyCap fully mediates the relationship between supportive organizational climate and performance. In addition, data from a large cross sectional survey of working adults from across a number of occupational sectors indicates that PsyCap may be of central importance in better understanding the variation in perceived symptoms of stress; as well as intentions to quite and job search behaviours [38].

In comparison to the evidence surrounding performance, a limited number of studies have systemically examined the impact of the PsyCap over time on employee wellbeing. A recent study analysed the relationship between a broad cross section of employees’ (N=280) self-reported level of PsyCap and two measures of psychological wellbeing over time. Results of the study found that employees’ PsyCap was related to both measures of psychological wellbeing, and that PsyCap help to greater explain/ account for employees wellbeing overtime [39].

Therefore, there is growing evidence to indicate that PsyCap is positively related to employee’s attitudes, behaviours, performance, and various aspects of their health and wellbeing. Consequently, it is postulated that the four positive psychological capacities of confidence, hope, optimism, and resilience are indeed measurable, open to development and can be managed in order to cultivate workplace health and various positive business outcomes through enhanced work performance. The following section provides an example of a workplace-based intervention aimed to cultivate enhanced positive psychological capital.


Positive Occupational Health Psychology in practice

The following section seeks to provide a discussion of how the concepts and theories discussed in positive occupational health psychology can be integrated into workplace policies and practices. The two previously discussed topics, work engagement and psychological capital, will be examples.

Intervention to promote Psychological Capital

Positive psychological capital, like human and social capital, can be invested in and effectively managed [34]. Luthans and colleagues [40] designed and implemented an online intervention with the aim to develop psychological capital. The intervention consisted of two online sessions as part of a training programme. The first session consisted of an introductory presentation of the positive capacities of resilience and efficacy; and how each capacity is applicable in the workplace in general, and their jobs in particular. In the final stage of the first session, participants were asked to consider personal work-related situations in their own organisations where they could identify examples of resilience and efficacy.

The second session of the online training programme focused on developing hope and optimism among participants. The participants began the second session by considering personal goals. Following which, participants watched a presentation on the importance of personal values and the realistic challenge of achieving goals and accomplishing tasks. Participants were then instructed to draft a list of several tasks that were perceived as realistically challenging, applicable to their own work situation and of personal significance. The next task required participants to break these goals into smaller sub-goals, which would be more easily achievable. The final stage of part two of the training programme asked participants to identify and generate a list of possible alternative pathways in order to achieving the identified goals/ sub-goals.

The effectiveness of the intervention was tested by comparatively assessing the pre and post data from a ‘intervention’ group and ‘non intervention/ control’ group. The results of the evaluation demonstrated that the ‘intervention’ group experienced a significant increase in their psychological capital, in comparison to the ‘non intervention’ group. This study provides preliminary evidence that psychological capital can be cultivated/ developed in the workplace; and that a short web-based training intervention was effective platform in which to accomplish this.

Promoting work engagement in the workplace

Schaufeli and Salanova [22] argue that work engagement in employees can be encouraged through effective human resource management. They describe three human resource strategies, each with their own unique and concentrated focus, that may enhance/ cultivate work engagement. It is important to note that these postulated strategies have not been tested or evaluated yet.

The first strategy is termed ‘employee development agreement’. The main aim of this strategy is to optimise the respective fit between the employee and the organisation. It is thought that this can be accomplished in three key steps: (1) assessing values, preferences, and goals (both personal and professional); (2) subsequently, negotiating a written contract (the agreement) that acknowledges these goals and necessary resources provided by the organisation to accomplish them; and (3) monitoring this agreement in a systematic manner, in order to examine whether the goals have been achieved and, if not, discussing the adaption of the goals and/or the resources required.

The second strategy contains a wellness audit of the organisation. This entails both employer and employee evaluate together the level of wellness experienced by employees. Based on the collected information form the wellness audit, an informed decision can be collaboratively made between employer and employees on what improvement measure should be taken. The third strategy involves the organisation of workshops aimed to promote work engagement by enhancing personal and organisational resources. The primary focus of these workshops should be in relation to optimising the quality of work and the level of employee functioning. All three strategies are underpinned by the concentrated focus on promoting the motivational potential of job resources.

Links for further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Mental health promotion in the workplace – A good practice report, 2011. Available at: http://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/reports/mental-health-promotion-workplace_TEWE11004ENN/view

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Workplace health promotion for employees, 2010. Available at: http://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/factsheets/94/view.

Attridge, M., ‘Employee work engagement: Best practices for employers’, Research Works: Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2009, 1-12. Available at http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/Publications-Surveys/Research-Works/Employee-Engagement-Best-Practices-for-Employers.aspx?FT=.pdf.

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