‘Unfreezing moments are here… we have to be ready to work together’

Stuart Carr is Professor of Psychology at Massey University in New Zealand/Aotearoa. He will be delivering the opening keynote at EAWOP. Ingrid Covington asks the questions.

The congress is to be hosted in Glasgow in January 2022; tell us about your Scottish heritage.
Kia ora, Ingrid, it’s a huge privilege to be here. Yes, my father was from Gorbals in Glasgow, and then more generations before him. So I’ve got a bit of Scottish blood. My mother was from Guernsey and the Channel Islands. It will be lovely to reconnect with Scotland, and Glasgow, especially at this time.

We were talking before about the importance of motherland and sense of belonging, especially during times of insecurity. So your work is in the humanitarian space… tell us about that.
It starts with a connection to Scotland again. I studied at Stirling University, was a social psychologist, did a PhD in social change, and then got my first job in Malawi in southern East Africa. It was and still is a relatively poor country, economically, although rich in culture, people and many other things. Very beautiful country. I got my first job there and it was an upheaval, it was an adjustment. I very quickly realised that if psychology was going to be valuable, it probably had to be applied, to be useful. And I looked around for something to be useful in.

Access to decent work was being touted then – and to some extent has been touted ever since – as a way to eradicate or at least help to reduce poverty. So I ended up becoming more of a work psychologist – like a figure-ground reversal between social psychology and work psychology. The social psychology started out being front and got pushed a wee bit to the back, and applied organisational work and organisational psychology became something that I grew into.

In recent decades, the application has been around the eradication of working poverty: the great irony is that we have more people in work than ever before (although that’s changing a bit with Covid), but then we also have this working poverty issue. Most of the work in the world is fairly low-grade in terms of security of income, security of tenure, formality, social protections and so on. If you’re in relatively harsh and hard conditions, having a half decent wage can make a huge difference to the quality of life and work life. So I’ve ended becoming more focused on work psychology and wages.

We may over-psychologise work, and the wages aren’t the only reason people go to work, but they can make a huge difference to the various colours of life. We’ve got global debates about living wages, minimum wages, maximum wages, and Covid has underscored new fracture lines in the world of work. Fixing wages to actually enable people to have decent quality work and life is probably why I’m here today.

And do you think the topic is particularly timely now?
Just before the pandemic came, the International Labour Organisation World of Work report was saying that poor working conditions are the number one challenge for the world of work. That was before the pandemic. Around the world, there are big differences between countries in terms of income and in terms of wages. But unfortunately, poverty knows no borders… even in countries like New Zealand/Aotearoa, which are relatively prosperous, we have a child poverty issue, a homelessness issue, we have people going to work that are sleeping in cars. Wages have lost track with the cost of housing. And so poor working conditions is the number one challenge for the world of work, and there can’t be a louder wake up call for us as a discipline and profession.

I do think we have done quite a bit. When I went to Malawi, it became apparent to me that ours is a very applied discipline, it has got legs, it is relevant. And you have people at the World Bank saying, ‘we need to protect people, not jobs’, because many jobs have become low grade and low paid. Well, protecting people is our role. We’re seeing multiple, associated crises – health, gender equity, racial justice, environmental, economic – so now is the time we can step up. That means academics and practitioners working together, which is a timely theme of the conference.

How are you doing that in your own work, including at the policy level?
I mentioned the difference between a living wage and a legal minimum. One of the ways those two can be fused is through city ordinances. A city can say, ‘we are going to commit to paying the living wage to all of our employees, and any contractors that want to bid for contracts with the city need to budget in for living wages to their employees, as well as in the supply chain’. Quite a few cities in America have gone down that pathway, and here in New Zealand/Aotearoa our capital city Wellington moved to a living wage ordinance some time ago.

In the midst of this pandemic, Hamilton City Council, here in New Zealand, was having a council debate about whether to move to a living wage ordinance, which could make a big difference to a lot of people in terms of bread on the table. They invited HR departments, small to medium enterprises, council members and so on. We were the only research group. We’ve done extensive survey work, case studies, interviews, and so on, and we were able to show our interpretation of the relationship between wages and well-being, both individual and organisational. It was a fierce debate, evidence was challenged. Well, we’ll say no, it’s been peer reviewed in, you know, high quality sustainability journals and work psychology journals. And at the end of the day, the council did actually move to an ordinance. We know that’s made a difference to at least hundreds of workers in Hamilton region, and likely many more because of the ripple effects.

The point of the story is we weren’t the only voice in the room. It involved partnerships between researchers, practitioners in HR and so on. It was evidence-based practice, and it made a difference. That stands out as a career highlight because of the change that happened from it, and it came about because of the very thing the conference stands for.

What a wonderful story… what was the glue that held you together as a team? The evidence, a vision, or a combination?
It was a partnership across Human Resource Management and Industrial/Organisational Psychology, with the business community and non-government organisations too, like the Living Wage Movement Aotearoa New Zealand and Poverty Action Waikato. Lots of stakeholders, a real dialogue. And as I say, that can get a little bit heated. But my advice is to have as many voices in the room as you can. That’s where your strength comes from. You’ll get asked nuts and bolts questions: ‘if you raise the wages, what’s going to happen to those people who were previously doing quite well compared to everybody else?’. Then you bring in your work justice theories, and your transparency of explanations and so on. So partnerships all the way through, wherever you look.

I had that experience in Malawi: research had to be practical and practice had to be informed by research. That’s a synergy. You know that space very well, Ingrid. And it does actually become quite seamless after a while.

The questions you were asked, they’re looking to the future, what change will impact over here and over there.

I think we look at change as if it’s something that’s easy to do or not. One of the great lessons is that it often takes a long time for those things to happen. People come into the profession wanting to make a difference. It will happen, sometimes not when you expect it! You have to be ready to say what you know, and know what you say, when the opportunity comes. It will come. Those unfreezing moments that Kurt Lewin used to talk about, we’re in a huge number of them right now in the world of work. Here they are, and we have to be ready to work together as researchers and practitioners to say what we need to say and to do what we need to do.

Hamilton City Council came to us at short notice but we were ready, we had the partnerships in place. It’s like planned happenstance! You can be ready for it. Each of us has a corner of the world we can help change when the time comes.

I’m really happy to be to be poised and ready, and see that we’re laying foundations for change. What would you like to see more of from other psychologists?
Lots of psychologists are doing their work around making work more humanitarian, and there has been work in EAWOP and the BPS… I’m thinking of the manifesto for the future of work and organisational psychology that Matthijs Bal and a big team of I/O work psychologists put together, and some of the articles I’ve been reading in The Psychologist including by Ishbel McWha-Hermann and Rosalind Searle. I’m thinking of Project GLOW, the global living organisational wage, a network of 27 countries now.

So there’s a lot going on, but there are still wake up calls. In organisational work and organisational psychology we often focus on one organisation, and I don’t think we do halfway near enough to focus on whole supply chains. GLOW, for example, is focused on living wages along entire supply chains and decent work conditions between organisations as well as within them. Why haven’t we got a work psychology of fair trade? I’ve been working with early career and other scholars recently, to put together theoretical think pieces for the profession, so we can pull together a big partnership around academic researchers and practitioners to work together on that.

I think as well, we’ve put a lot of faith in the concept of a job – job selection, job analysis, job evaluation, job performance, job well being. The concept of a job is quite individualised, formalized, regular, predictable. And if you’ve got one, it’s brilliant, right? You’re really lucky. But the digital way of working, gig work, all of that is changing what we mean by work. Maybe the job has done its dash. Two-thirds of the world’s workforce, 3.3 billion people, don’t have a formal job. They’re in the informal economy. They’re on what they call own account work, micro businesses, no formal status, very few resources and so on, dirt farmers… we need to broaden our concept out. We’ve got ‘decent work and economic development’ in there as Sustainable Development Goal eight with the United Nations, but I’d like to suggest ‘sustainable livelihood’, as a set of conditions that can enable people to achieve goals that they have through work.

I think sustainable livelihood takes in more forms of livelihood. My colleagues Darrin Hodgetts and Shiloh Groot, for example, have been working on radical commerce, which is how you make a street intersection a workplace and make a living out of it, window washing or whatever. That’s just one example. There are so many people around the world in livelihoods, some less sustainable than others, and we can broaden our focus to the conditions that enable a sustainable livelihood.

That would be a fantastic change to see, and I just know that when you deliver your opening keynote you’re going to be inspiring. You’ve gone above and beyond to do everything you can to be there in person. What’s it’s going to feel like attending and presenting in this ‘new normal’?
To be honest, I never used to think conferences made that much of a difference. But the more I’ve gone on in my career, the more I’ve realised that they really do. The opportunity to actually have that conversation… not always in the formal sessions, either, it’s the corridor conversations, the informal and unexpected. The connections that are struck up, they’re not initially task-based, they’re more relationship based. You get to know somebody, or learn about their perspective, and then that becomes something years down the track.
Sustainable livelihood is about livelihoods being connected to one another. That’s the look at the definition. And I’ll talk more about the definition at the conference. But it’s about people being connected to one another. And in a way, that’s what those live conferences are all about. So, kia ora koutou, and ka kite ano – I’ll see you soon!

- Find much more from EAWOP, and information on attending.

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