‘I’m happy to be an academic and a psychologist committed to positive change’

Ian Florance meets Ashley Weinberg.

Ashley Weinberg is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Salford. He also edited a ground-breaking and very readable book on the psychology of politics in 2012 while also writing widely on the effects of stress, particularly in public sector organisations and professions. In the June 2017 issue of The Psychologist he wrote fascinatingly about the physical spaces within which politics takes place. A very brief biography accompanying that article suggested further questions: Does his interest stem from a particular political commitment? If so, how does that sit with professional psychological practice? And how did Ashley discover his specific interests and ‘find a space’ for them within his academic responsibilities?

Our attempts to talk with each other, at a distance, were thwarted initially by time and technology. When we finally got through to each other we agreed that we were technophobes. ‘Actually,’ Ashley commented, ‘that is relevant. How we cope with new technology, new ways of working and change is one of my interests.’

Psychology is not getting a fair bite of the cherry
‘I’m on a sabbatical now, cooperating with others on a report about work and health for the British Psychological Society.’ I asked Ashley what the purpose of such reports and his research and writing work is. ‘It’s about positive change, and this underpins my interest in politics. Politics started out as something of a research hobby; now I see my role as trying to affect policy, at the very least to get people who have some power to think more about mental health and psychological issues. Yesterday was our second ‘Psychology of Democracy’ conference at Salford. It began with a focus on the politicians themselves – how they think, what they believe and how they communicate their ideas – and then considered the role of political communications, including the media. The next conference will be in 2019, 200 years after the Peterloo Massacre – the attack on citizens demanding political rights.’

Has the situation changed since you started working in the area 25 years ago? ‘There’s been progress. More people are interested in the issues, at least. We get a better airing though not necessarily better funding.’ You don’t see research as somehow the opposite of applied work? ‘No… it’s true that defining yourself as an academic can create a pigeon hole, but research should influence policy. But generally, psychology is not getting a fair bite of the cherry.’ Why not? ‘We could be more political as a profession and develop confidence in contributing to political issues. We also need to work harder on public misunderstanding of what psychology is. It’s not like we’re starting from scratch – in the 1920s and ’30s a lot of policy makers were interested in the discipline. We need to reclaim that situation.’

I ask Ashley how we might go about this. ‘The very act of researching can raise awareness – so surveying MPs about their stress levels made them more aware of the issues. Then you need high-profile, committed people who are skilled at communicating. And the Society – particularly the PR and Comms department – have always been helpful. We have some really important and substantial things to say but to get people to listen we need to communicate them with a bit more attention to accessibility, even glitz, and spend time targeting the policy makers.’

‘I believe change is possible’
Ashley was born in Chelmsford, Essex but grew up in North Wales. ‘My parents ran an innovative residential training centre owned by MENCAP called Pengwern Hall where, together with a talented team, they pioneered approaches to skills training with school-leavers with moderate to severe learning difficulties. I spent 18 to 19 years in this fascinating, diverse environment. It gave me a good understanding of people and change and made me think I wanted to work somewhere in the psychological sphere.’

Ashley did a degree in psychology with biology in Manchester. ‘I still see friends from that course. I was very involved in the drama society which is, perhaps, a different method for psychology students to develop ideas about why people do what they do.’ Ashley decided to do a master’s course: ‘We had a career booklet which suggested to me that occupational psychology was an interesting option.’ He did this part-time at the University of Sheffield while working at the psychiatry department in central Manchester. ‘Anne and I were married and had children by then – earning a living became important and she supported me in making this happen. My PhD was in psychiatry at Manchester University. It was on sources of stress in the NHS and led to my writing with Cary Cooper – a world-leading thinker on stress and charming man.’

I still wanted to know what had led Ashley to these interests. ‘My parents were keen for me to understand outside events and to feel confident in the world. I was born when memories of the Second World War were still fresh, and in the early 1970s we were all too aware of contemporary wars: the world didn’t seem a happy place. So, I wondered, “Can we gain a real insight into why people in positions of power and influence make puzzling or even terrible decisions?” Extraordinary circumstances create special stresses; so, can we understand how people cope – including politicians? We often treat politics as being another world peopled by specially gifted or sometimes monstrous people. But it seemed to me that politics is part of our world, and the issues it raises can help us change things for the better in many areas. For example, in workplaces where, again, stress creates mistakes and requires prevention as well as coping strategies.’ Ashley paused for a second. ‘At first, I wasn’t sure I might resolve the tension between what I trained in and my interests, but experience has taught me that it’s possible to apply psychology in any area, and national politics is no different.’

He helped to set up the psychology department at Salford and leads modules in occupational and social psychology and individual differences. ‘In the early days, there weren’t a lot of staff, so I also took on teaching forensic psychology. I don’t know who learnt most, me or the students. We’ve kept expanding, and I’m lucky to work alongside a friendly and supportive group of colleagues.’

Ashley is well known for his interactive workshops delivered ‘often to public sector groups’: ‘The roles of delegates are often to help other people and these sessions are a real, and perhaps rare, opportunity to look at themselves. I’ve worked with diverse groups from psychiatrists to community health trainers, complaints managers to dentists.’ Are there differences between the issues public and private sector organisations face? ‘The cuts in public sector provision, resourcing and workforce numbers have created specific problems. In particular, people are under workload pressures, which can make it hard to deliver what we know is required, and this can put pressure on good working relationships. And there’s unsettling uncertainty. In fact, this is true of psychologists who work in the public sector. We need time to address our own situation, but this is scarce. The private sector presents a different challenge – organisations in the private sector can be cautious about taking part in research projects in case they uncover something negative. So, we need more data there.’

And what will this lead to? ‘I’d like to write more about the psychology of democracy and wellbeing at work. I believe change is possible, but progress can be slow – persistence is the key. Thankfully my children are far more talented than me and don’t use such cheesy lines!’

- Might you have an interesting story to tell about your career path, the highs and lows of your current role or the professional challenges you are facing? If you would like to be considered for a ‘Careers’ interview in The Psychologist, get in touch with the editor Dr Jon Sutton ([email protected]). Of course there are many other ways to contribute to The Psychologist, but this is one that many find to be particularly quick, easy and enjoyable.

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