Figuring out the destination

Ella Rhodes reports from the annual conference of the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology.

In a truly packed schedule the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology’s annual conference covered everything from the climate crisis and Covid-19 to career changes and mentorship. Compered by BBC Radio 4 All in the Mind presenter Claudia Hammond, the conference (virtually) brought together hundreds of practitioners and academics. Journalist Ella Rhodes was there to report, and also gave a workshop on writing tips. 

Keynote speaker Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour (London Business School), kicked off the event with an exploration of trends in career changes and the stages of transition when changing career. Ibarra said there are four forces which affect the extent to which people change careers, as well as what types of career they change to and what drives them – longevity, or our longer life expectancies; technology, work and organisational changes; social mores or expectations; and the more recent additional impact of Covid-19, which has in some cases forced people to think of a career change, or encouraged people to reflect on their careers. 

Since the 1980s there has also been a shift in the way people view careers, moving from quite a rigid career path to portfolio careers (having several jobs at once). Ibarra moved to discussing her research on the stages of transition between careers – particularly mid-career changes around the age of 40, where people move into creating their own roles, businesses or portfolios. 

She has found that this transition can take a long time and people often do not have a clear route. The destination they are looking for tends to be ‘under-institutionalised’, without a clear route through qualifications or internships. ‘In my work around that mid-career transition probably the biggest theme overall is that… people can often articulate very, very clearly what it is that they no longer want, what doesn't suit them about what they're doing, but they have a much harder time understanding or identifying what it is that they want to move into instead… that is precisely what leads the career change process to take longer and to be rather messy and nonlinear, because part of the process is figuring out what is the destination.’ 

The transition between careers often involves a ‘liminal period’, or the threshold between past and future, which Ibarra said is an uncomfortable but necessary stage. People feel as if the rules of their former life no longer apply, allowing them to think more creatively about the possibilities of their future. Our identity is often wrapped up in what we do, and so Ibarra suggested we should change what we do through getting involved with different projects to explore possibilities and to find people outside usual networks who may be in a similar transition.

Mentorship and the NHS

Hardeep Virdi, Dr David Biggs and Nikita Mikhailov gave an overview of their mentorship programme Emerging Occ Psychs – which offers recent graduates or early career occupational psychologists nine months of mentorship with experienced occupational psychologists from a range of backgrounds as well as development workshops. Mikhailov said he was inspired to co-found this programme following the death of psychometrician Wendy Lord, a mentor and close personal friend. He wanted to ensure everyone had access to a mentor regardless of their personal circumstances. 

The new chair of the Division of Occupational Psychology Janet Fraser, who has been leading the ‘working differently’ stream of the BPS Covid-19 Coordinating Group’s activities, opened the second day of the conference. She spoke of the difficulties that trainee occupational psychologists face in gaining enough experience for their stage two qualifications, and said she had an ambition to work with the BPS and NHS to arrange internships for trainees within the health service – similar to how health psychologists have implemented two-year internships within the NHS. 

‘That would have the effect of giving them all the experience they need to qualify… it means that the NHS will begin to learn more about what we can offer to support them, and because it would result in support, and improvements to the workforce within the NHS and those who are delivering services, it would have a knock-on effect for safe and effective patient care.’

The first clinical psychologist to be elected as an MP, Dr Lisa Cameron (Scottish National Party), who is also Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Psychology, said given the diverse careers and backgrounds represented in parliament she felt psychologists had as much to give in parliamentary sessions as other professions. Cameron also said that her psychology background had helped her personally in being supportive to her constituents, navigating stressful situations including Brexit and the snap election. 

Climate crisis and Covid

Co-Conveners of the DOP’s Going Green Working Group Dr Jan Maskell and Kiran Kaur were joined by group member Dr Amanda Harrington (Loughborough University) and Naomi Stone (St Monica Trust) to discuss the climate crisis and lessons learned from Covid-19. Harrington opened with interesting research by Bostrom et al which explored the overlap between our perception of risk regarding Covid-19 and the climate crisis. ‘What Bostrom and that group looked at were these two conflicting responses to risk perception which I thought were really interesting, this notion that we have a worry budget – this finite pool of worry. I think mine’s definitely spent. We worry so much currently about Covid, understandably, that we have nothing left to invest in climate change. We're just worn out.’

Harrington added that Covid had highlighted the importance of global and systemic solutions which we can use to consider climate change. She added that there were roles for everyone, in every aspect of work, to address the challenges of climate change for example by shifting research focus to consider climate change. 

Maskell explored some of the changes in commuting during Covid-19 lockdowns and shared research from the CBI that showed before the pandemic 88 per cent of staff travelled within the UK for work, while 57 per cent travelled internationally. Ipsos Mori found that after the first UK lockdown people walked 33 per cent more and cycled 11 per cent more, travelling by car – as either a passenger or driver – also decreased by 48 per cent. 

All of these changes led to a reduction in emissions and even in distress, particularly among commuters who previously travelled by car. The CBI has also explored the potential changes in business travel post-pandemic and found that 65 per cent of organisations said it was likely that staff would no longer need to travel within the UK to meet colleagues or clients thanks to the use of video calls, and 50 per cent of organisations said the same for international travel. 

Speaking of another piece of research, which found only 9 per cent of adults wanted things to return to how they were before, Maskell said 50 per cent of people also said they hoped we learned from the Covid crisis as a country. ‘I'm putting my hopes on that one…  that we will have learned from this crisis in terms of not only how to deal with the pandemic but the impact we can have on the environment.’

Kaur covered some of the practical actions which individuals and organisations can take to reduce their carbon footprint. She suggested that people could heat and insulate their homes more efficiently, use a more fuel-efficient car, walk and cycle more, recycle and simply switch appliances off when they were not in use. Organisations should monitor and track their carbon emissions and develop a plan to reduce them, working with supply chains which themselves are reducing emissions. Kaur said that organisations could also foster a culture in which pro-environment behaviours are aligned with its environmental strategy. ‘And what can also be done is for leaders to encourage green conversation, bring talking about the environment to the consciousness of staff, supply chains and clients – normalise it, so people can strive for higher standards.’

Biophilia and the workplace

Growing up in inner-city Cardiff Stone said much of her childhood was spent surrounded by concrete and tarmac, until she met her husband – an outdoorsy sort who ‘opened her eyes’ to nature and the nuances of the changing seasons, which all made her consider her own impact on the environment. She pointed to the biophilia hypothesis – which considers our innate need to connect with the natural world and the importance of nature for our wellbeing. 

Stone highlighted a study which involved 22,000 participants who used an app called Mappiness, which would ask people throughout a day where they were and how they were feeling. People felt significantly happier in green environments compared with urban environments. Stone said some research had found that the Covid-19 pandemic had led to people spending more time in nature, and simply noticing the nature around them. 

In terms of the workplace Stone said her own systematic review had found mixed results in the effect of biophilia in the workplace, but some studies have found that having a view of nature through an office window may be associated with lower levels of stress or that spending time outside in the working day can reduce stress. 

In a field study Stone found that participants who spent 10 minutes outside during the working day, compared to controls who did a nature-based activity while indoors, had higher levels of positive affect, lower levels of negative affect and found a correspondence between being outdoors and job satisfaction. However in qualitative data she also found that people tended to feel guilty about taking time out to experience nature during the working day which could be a barrier for some – she said psychologists could be well placed to encourage people to spend time in nature, even during work. 

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