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Presidential Blog

Social justice and psychological science in the workplace

11 January 2017 | by Peter Kinderman

The psychological wellbeing of employees in the workplace, along with children’s mental health and bringing the mental health services up to parity with the rest of the NHS, featured notably in Theresa May’s speech.

The role of psychology in the workplace was, naturally, the theme of last week’s annual conference of our own Division of Occupational Psychology. There, delegates emphasised the dominant role of social factors in shaping our health and psychological wellbeing at work.

Physical and psychosocial work environments, and the wider policy environment, can affect our health. While individual factors can affect our vulnerability, social and environmental factors seem to explain much more of the variance in health outcomes. Work-related stress and poor mental health are more common among those in disadvantaged socioeconomic conditions.

At work, high employer demands and low employee control over their work, circumstances where employee effort is not matched by reward, poor decision making processes and perceived unfair treatment of employees - job insecurity; long and irregular working hours – are all associated with ill health and poor productivity.

This means that organisational culture is key to mental health and wellbeing. Interventions at both the individual and organisational level are important; but there is no point improving individual mental wellbeing if the organisational culture is still detrimental to our mental health.

Interventions should be available to everyone, communicated to everyone and designed with all employees in mind.

Increasing employees control and autonomy over work, increasing staff participation and involvement in the organisation, flexible working, effective line management (including an ability to identify early signs of mental health problems and respond appropriately and responsibly), training and development opportunities and the ability to tailor job circumstances to individual needs are all likely to benefit employees’ physical and psychological health, and employers are likely also to benefit from greater employee loyalty and productivity.

We live in a world of striking, and increasing, inequity. The ratio of the salary of the CEOs of UK FTSE 100 companies to the salary of their average (notably, not even the lowest paid) employee means that the average CEO earns 123 times as much as the average employee. While we may or may not have political and moral views on this, the psychological science tells us that this is harmful to our wellbeing.

Those workplaces where there are the largest gaps between the highest and lowest paid suffer more industrial disputes and experience greater staff sickness and turnover than employers with more equitable policies. We are rapidly descending into an unequal and unjust society – despite the prime minister’s calls for a movement away from “unfairness and division”.

For us as psychologists, the evident consequences of social injustice justify a call for action. Despite being one of the richest nations in the world, here in the UK we do indeed have a responsibility to address “burning injustice” whether that is in the field of mental health care or elsewhere. A commitment to social justice is welcome – of course. But urgent and decisive action is needed.

The inequity evident in CEO to employee pay ratios could be addressed in a number of ways (without necessarily applying Jeremy Corbyn’s idea of a maximum income). A legislative requirement for transparency would be welcome, and could achieve change alone.

Such a policy could be linked to differential corporation tax (where companies could pay different levels of tax dependent on such ratios, and indeed whether or not other policies are adopted to protect workers) and employee representatives on boards, particularly, in the case of pay, of course, the remuneration committees may well be effective.

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