‘I have continued to dance to the beat of my own drum’

Ella Rhodes hears from Dr Joanna Wilde around her election as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

You have worked for more than 30 years in organisational change, promoting health and wellbeing in organisations, influencing national policy including as a member of the Health and Safety Executive’s Workplace Health Expert Committee. Could you tell me about that work, and proud moments of your career?

I have focused on psychology’s contribution to the design of healthy environments as a multi-disciplinary practitioner and advisor, drawing on knowledge and insights from social science and design disciplines in response to complex questions from organisations and latterly policy makers. I have drawn attention to the role of power, workplace inequality, organisational justice, the systemic factors that contribute to dysfunctional psychosocial environments and the importance of design-led intervention. I am particularly proud of raising awareness about the psychological consequences of the growing epidemic of bad work, associated with working poverty and health inequality, which has gained increased salience during the pandemic. 

I am also proud that I have continued to dance to the beat of my own drum throughout my career, despite repeated requests/pressure from employers to take on more general director or VP roles that would have been much more lucratively paid.  

How did it feel to be elected as a fellow – particularly as a practitioner psychologist?

I have long been concerned about psychology giving scant attention to ‘translational’ knowledge work, so it is deeply important to me to have that recognised. As a profession, we do not influence as we should. We have an increasing need for psychological know-how to be able to work with the complex, interconnecting challenges we face – but I am concerned we are not in a position to meet this need. The lack of esteem for ‘practice’ means that gaining strategic know-how is not included in the development of psychologists and, I believe, it has also left the knowledge our researchers produce vulnerable to oversight or misuse – potentially used by other disciplines to justify overly simplistic and inaccurate individualistic explanations of what are more often systemic and structural issues. A recent example is the unhelpful touting of the idea of behavioural fatigue in the context of essential pandemic protections.

The recognition through a Fellowship hints at a ‘strategic know how’ pathway for our profession to work our way out of the silos we have trapped ourselves in. It also gives me a sense of personal vindication that my choice to practice after gaining my doctorate has allowed me both to demonstrate the benefits that accrue from applying psychological understanding to work and health and also to make a distinctive and recognised contribution to knowledge.  

How do you think psychology’s contribution to workplace health will develop in the future? 

Our understanding of psychological factors such as group processes, decision-making, behaviour change and mental health will be recognised as increasingly relevant to matters of work and health. I therefore believe that the demand for psychologically informed input will increase – but I am concerned the profession is not geared up to meet this demand. While the research infrastructure in place in psychology is equipped to respond to increasingly complex research questions relevant to work and health, our infrastructure for ‘translation’ is close to non-existent. As policy and practice questions become more complex there is a risk that other professions will be better placed to respond, contributing to oversight or to harmful mis-application of our research.

This gap in translational capacity is an issue I am directly facing as I am coming off the professional register this month – 30 years’ psychology practice in difficult and damaging workplaces is enough for anyone – and am turning my attention to consolidation. I have been struck by the difficulty I have had in identifying psychologists with strategic know-how, which I consider to be the essential underpinning for effective knowledge translation in complex policy contexts. I also can’t see the infrastructure in our profession that would enable us to develop a ‘pipeline’ of psychologists with such capacity. As I moved into senior corporate roles, I managed this gap through maintaining informal links with various academic departments to support my development. These informal connections enabled two-way ‘knowledge pipelines’ that enhanced both my practice/intervention design and my colleagues research question formation and impact statements. However, the capacity for such informal connections into academia is now increasingly limited for those of us whose expertise is in practice, compromised by the growth of paywalled knowledge and increasing use of in academia of precarious employment practices.

By contrast, in mature health professions and management education, there is regular investment in ‘professor of practice’ positions aimed very specifically at ‘translation’ from know-what to know-how. Exploring how we may learn from these alternative approaches to support effective psychological input to policy questions about work and health would be helpful and timely.

See also tinyurl.com/wilde0618 for Joanna’s ‘other CV’.

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