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15th March 2019

Changes in Occupational Psychology over the past 25 years

Changes in Occupational Psychology over the past 25 years 1

Occupational Psychology has seen a major increase in popularity among organisations in the past 25 years. Many more students are now studying Occupational Psychology at postgraduate level and the number of universities offering the course has more than doubled. Recently, Occupational Psychology has taken a more holistic approach, moving from looking at individual employees to working at an organisational or team level. In this article, we look at what important changes have taken place in Occupational Psychology since the 90s and how this has made individuals more effective and organisations more productive and profitable.

Shift of Focus

Since Occupational Psychology emerged in 1915, there has been a shift of focus in how psychology is studied. Originally, Occupational Psychology focused on the individual’s performance and it was measured in isolation from their work environment. Nowadays, the new approach accounts for the organisation as a whole and considers the wider social, economic and political environment that impacts it. This was followed by a name change from ‘industrial psychology’ to ‘organisational psychology’, placing more emphasis on the climate of the organisation. If the organisational climate is positive and supportive, it can significantly improve performance of employees, improve wellbeing and reduce conflict.

War for Talent

In the 90s, the term ‘War for Talent’ emerged1. As there were shortages in some labour markets, organisations realised that there was competition between companies to recruit and retain the most talented employees2. The competition was also intensified by the changes in demographics, as there were fewer generation X workers to replace the baby-boom retirement. Organisations begun to see the benefits in investing more money into scientific methods of recruitment in order to identify the strongest applicants. More recently, ‘Grad Schemes’ have become a trend for larger organisations offering structured training programmes to develop future leaders of their organisation. Graduate schemes are incredibly popular, and companies often receive a large number of applications per job. Therefore, organisations are employing Occupational Psychologists to develop bespoke selection and assessment processes to identify the top talent to recruit.

Patterns of Working

The development of technology has caused changes in patterns of working, including the possibility of job sharing and flexible working6. Technology has also changed what is expected from employees, as many employees now have to continually monitor and respond to emails on their mobiles outside the working day. Although the development of technology has helped improve communication in and between organisations, it can also prevent employees being able to relax and ‘switch-off’ outside the working day. Occupational Psychologists have led the tools and solutions to combat these new challenges, introducing technology to improve autonomy, control and job security, and researching whether mindfulness is in fact the solution to the ‘always-on’ culture.


Over the past 25 years, there has been increased interest in the term ‘Wellbeing’. In the past organisations didn’t consider wellbeing to be related to employee performance so invested little effort and money to support their employees. Nowadays, research has shown that effective wellbeing programmes have many benefits for employees, which can result in significant organisational and economic benefits3. Occupational psychologists have helped improve employee wellbeing in a number of ways; by designing healthy office spaces, providing executive coaching, encouraging positive organisational culture, facilitating training to build employee resilience and how to manage stress, developing effect leaders and much more. This work has delivered measurable benefits to businesses and organisations, with the UK government increasing their focus on employee wellbeing in the last 5 years.

Positive Organisational Behaviour (POB)

POB4 is a growing trend in occupational health research since the emergence of ‘positive psychology’ in the 1990s, which shifted the traditional psychological research focus on human weaknesses to an increased focus on positive emotions and behaviours5. In line with the shift to a positive approach, the POB construct of work engagement gained interest by both academics and practitioners. New constructs that are currently of interest within the field include psychological capital, resilience, emotional intelligence and authentic leadership.

Changes to Organisational Structure

Employment expectations have changed and the concept of ‘job for life’ doesn’t tend to hold anymore for younger workers8. Employees are now more focused on developing their own personal career plans and portfolios to make them more employable rather than seeking permanent employment at one organisation. This is shown by the number of people signing up to professional social networking sights, like ‘LinkedIn’. The number of users has more than doubled in one year from 106 million (in 2016) to 260 million (in 2017). Employer’s generally emphasise the importance of employee flexibility, adaptability and innovation since employees with these traits are more likely to embrace change. The option of a ‘portfolio career’ is now a reality for many people which would have been unthinkable 25 years ago. Occupational Psychologists play a crucial role in helping both individuals and organisations in this ever changing ‘career’ landscape. For example, professional coaching can help individuals identify what they value in relation to work and determine whether these values align with those of the organisation that they wish to work for or with.

Alteration of Labour Force 

The labour force in the UK looks dramatically different to how it did just a few decades ago. There have been considerable demographic changes in the workforce, with a significant increase in the numbers of women, ethnic minority groups and older workers. These changes have helped implement the equality legislation which has helped many of these individuals to be better represented in organisations7. Diversification in organisations has many benefits including increased creativity and productivity as there is a variety of perspectives and experience. Diversity of employees can also boost an organisation’s reputation, as it promotes an inclusive and progressive approach. Occupational Psychologists can help organisations increase the diversity of their workplaces by ensuring fair recruitment processes are in place, mitigating any possible discrimination.

Contemporary Occupational Psychology

There has been growing demand for Occupational Psychology services in Government and public industry. This has been reflected in the number of BPS accredited Masters degree courses in Occupational and Organisational Psychology that are offered by universities, increasing from 10 in 1990 to over 25 in 20129. Undergraduate Psychology courses are also starting to include modules relevant to Occupational Psychology. Occupational Psychology has significantly influenced the world of work as performance appraisals, ability tests, attitude surveys and so on are regularly used in organisations today.

Take Action

For more information about how your organisation can adapt and grow with change and keep ahead of the curve in todays dynamic climate, get in touch with our expert Occupational Psychologist Consultants here.

Changes in Occupational Psychology over the past 25 years 2References:

1. Michaels, E., Handfield-Jones, H., & Axelrod, B. (2001). The war for talent. Harvard Business Press.

2. Lievens, F., Van Dam, K., & Anderson, N. (2002). Recent trends and challenges in personnel selection. Personnel Review, 31(5), 580-601.

3. Sparks, K., Faragher, B., & Cooper, C. L. (2001). Well‐being and occupational health in the 21st century workplace. Journal of occupational and organizational psychology, 74(4), 489-509.

4. Luthans, F. (2002). Positive organizational behavior: Developing and managing psychological strengths. Academy of Management Perspectives, 16(1), 57-7.

5. Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychological Association, 55, 1-5.

6. Crompton, R. (2002). Employment, flexible working and the family. The British journal of sociology, 53(4), 537-558.

7. Doverspike, D., Taylor, M. A., Shultz, K. S., & McKay, P. F. (2000). Responding to the challenge of a changing workforce: Recruiting non-traditional demographic groups. Public Personnel Management, 29(4), 445-45.

8. Loughlin, C., & Barling, J. (2001). Young workers’ work values, attitudes, and behaviours. Journal of occupational and organizational Psychology, 74(4), 543-558.

9. British Psychological Society. (2019). List of BPS accredited Masters degree courses in Occupational and Organisational Psychology available at: