Occupational psychologists apply psychological knowledge, theory and practice to the world of work. They aim to help an organisation get the best performance from their employees and also to improve employees' job satisfaction.

Occupational psychologists apply expert knowledge to all levels of working and may work on organisational issues, such as culture and change, as well as issues at an individual or team level.

They can work in a consultancy role or in-house as an employee of an organisation. Collaboration is common with management, human resources officers and training and development officers, careers advisers and management consultants, business coaches, ergonomists and psychologists, trade union representatives and staff in teams and individually. Roles may also overlap.

Responsibilities

Both in-house and consultancy-based occupational psychologists carry out a range of activities according to the needs of their clients or the organisation they work for. The work can be broad in scope and cover areas such as:

  • human-machine interaction;
  • design of work environments;
  • personnel selection and assessment;
  • performance appraisal and career development;
  • counselling and personal development;
  • training, employee relations and motivation;
  • organisational development and change.

Depending on your area of work, you could be involved in:

  • assessing the usability and functionality of a system, such as a computer or workstation and making recommendations for improvements to ensure ease of use for the operator;
  • investigating problems that arise and accidents that occur as a result of poorly designed human-machine interfaces;
  • reviewing the ergonomic design of a workplace by assessing the suitability of elements such as lighting, noise levels and furniture and providing recommendations for changes or improvements;
  • working with engineers and designers to provide input into the design of equipment, like vehicles and workspaces;
  • developing, implementing or evaluating employee selection procedures, including psychometric tests, assessment centre exercises and structured interviews;
  • developing talent management processes and systems so organisations can identify and develop their high-potential employees;
  • providing coaching, guidance and advice to employees or students in order to help them plan and manage their careers;
  • designing performance appraisal systems that enable an organisation to measure, manage and reward the performance of its employees;
  • working one-to-one with individuals to support them in becoming more successful and effective in delivering their organisational objectives, while also enhancing their personal well-being;
  • analysing the training needs of employees, identifying skills gaps and determining how to address that gap in a cost-effective manner;
  • designing, developing and delivering training and development programmes;
  • mediating in situations where there is conflict between employees and management or an employment dispute;
  • designing, developing and implementing initiatives aimed at helping employees to cope successfully with changes taking place in their workplace, such as restructuring, downsizing or new business processes.

Salary

  • Starting salaries can be around £18,000 to £25,000 per annum.
  • Salaries for more experienced occupational psychologists range from £35,000, to in excess of £80,000. More experienced or senior consultants may earn higher salaries.

Private sector organisations, particularly management consultancies, tend to pay significantly more than the public or third sectors and academia.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

In large, private organisations, working hours and conditions may include regular extra hours. Weekends and shift work are rare. Flexible working hours operate in some Civil Service agencies.

What to expect

  • You may work both on your own and in project teams, on-site with a client, at training or management development centres or at your company's offices.
  • Self-employment and freelance work is common. However, self-employed psychologists are likely to have substantial work experience in a particular specialist area and will have built up a good client base before becoming freelance.
  • Both men and women are well represented throughout the profession.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK, but major consultancies tend to be based in the South East of England and in larger cities.
  • Consultants must respond to client needs. This often means working to tight deadlines. Business clients usually expect you to dress professionally.
  • Travel within a working day is frequent. Self-employed consultants need to be mobile, as they will need to travel to their client.
  • Absence from home at night may be necessary.
  • There may be opportunities in larger consultancies to work overseas with multinational client companies.

Qualifications

The main body representing psychologists in the UK is the British Psychological Society (BPS). It accredits training leading to designation as a chartered psychologist, which meets the standards of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Only once you're on the HCPC's register you can use the protected title of 'occupational psychologist'.

In order to become accredited by the BPS as a charted psychologist and eligible for registration with the HCPC, you must have:

  1. Graduate Basis for Chartered membership (GBC) - this is achieved by completing a BPS-accredited undergraduate degree (with a minimum 2:2 honours) or an accredited postgraduate conversion course, for those without a psychology degree. For a full list of GBC qualifying courses see the BPS Accredited Psychology Courses.
  2. A BPS-accredited Masters in Occupational Psychology - one year full time or two years part time (by attendance or blended/distance learning).
  3. The BPS Qualification in Occupational Psychology, known as QOP (Stage 2) - a doctoral-level qualification incorporating two years of supervised practice.

Entry requirements for the Masters courses vary, depending on the institution. Some course providers will expect at least a 2:1 honours plus some relevant work experience, although some will accept a 2:2. Contact individual universities for details of their requirements. Relevant experience can include work in human resources (HR) or in business or management.

Competition is keen for posts in both business and the Civil Service. Some universities offer short courses in subjects such as counselling, human resource management, careers guidance, consultancy, disability issues and running your own business, which could give you the edge over competitors.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • excellent communication and interpersonal skills, in order to convince clients of your abilities, inspire their trust and gain information;
  • adaptability and flexibility;
  • problem solving ability;
  • self-confidence, with the ability to deal with a variety of people;
  • the ability to influence other professions, managers and staff, who may be sceptical or resistant about what you are offering;
  • resilience and a positive attitude;
  • the ability to work under pressure - you will need to achieve results within fixed deadlines while working on a number of projects;
  • pragmatism;
  • commercial awareness;
  • the ability to show that your work has practical and worthwhile benefits over a relatively short timescale.

You may also need to demonstrate competence in psychometrics or statistical analysis for particular posts.

Work experience

Working for a psychometric test publisher is a route into careers in occupational psychology for some graduates and a good way of gaining some of the relevant commercial experience necessary for a more varied portfolio.

Employers

Due to recent changes in society, the economy and in the growth and use of technology, there is an increasing demand for occupational psychologists. They work with organisations and businesses of all sizes in the public, private and non-for-profit sectors alongside a range of other professionals, including:

  • managers;
  • HR staff;
  • union representatives;
  • training advisers;
  • specialist staff within client organisations.

Some occupational psychologists work in government and public services. According to the BPS, the Civil Service is one of the largest single employers of occupational psychologists. They work in departments such as:

Many occupational psychologists are employed in private consultancies, some of which specialise in occupational psychology-related services. Many of these consultancies are small, employing no more than a handful of psychologists, although some occupational psychologists work within the human capital service lines of larger, full-service consultancy firms.

Occupational psychologists also work in universities in teaching or research roles and some are self-employed. Some have portfolio careers combining several aspects of teaching, research and consultancy.

Psychometric test publishers also employ occupational psychologists.

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Professional development

The BPS Qualification in Occupational Psychology, known as the QOP (Stage 2), is a doctoral-level qualification consisting of a minimum of two years full-time (or part-time equivalent) supervised practice that builds on the knowledge gained on your BPS-accredited Masters degree.

Trainees must be employed as a trainee occupational psychologist in a relevant role (either paid or unpaid) related to occupational psychology for the duration of the training. Relevant jobs can include work in HR/personnel, assessment centres or with a consultancy.

You must also have a coordinating supervisor. It is your responsibility to find an appropriate supervisor, which can take some time. Supervisors can be either based at your place of work or external. For the current list of approved supervisors see the BPS Register of Applied Psychology Practice Supervisors (RAPPS).

During the training you will write up entries on the work you are doing, which is assessed annually. You are required to submit 12 entries overall: two breadth entries in each of your five chosen areas and two depth entries.

Once you have successfully completed the QOP (Stage 2), you are eligible for registration as an occupational psychologist with the HCPC and accreditation as a chartered psychologist with the BPS.

Once qualified, you must keep your skills up to date and follow the ongoing developments in research. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC and chartered membership of the BPS and should include a mixture of directed and self-directed activities.

Directed activities can include attending conferences, workshops and events, taking post-qualification training courses, writing for journals and undertaking and presenting research and papers at conferences. Training and development opportunities are available through the BPS Professional Development Centre.

It is also possible to undertake further research at PhD level.

Career prospects

In general, occupational psychology does not have a clear-cut career path and it's often down to the individual to determine how their career progresses.

Since many occupational psychologists are employed in small units, opportunities for advancement can be limited and you may need to change job to progress your career. However, depending on the organisation, there may be opportunities to progress to senior posts, leading teams or projects.

Occupational psychologists working for the Civil Service as part of the Government Occupational Psychology Profession have access to a range of learning, qualifications and opportunities to help develop their skills and careers.

Some occupational psychologists progress to self-employment, setting up their own consultancy businesses.

While occupational psychology provides a breadth of experience in several areas, many related professions, such as occupational health and safety, ergonomics and human resources (HR), have their own qualification structures and training programmes. Taking further related qualifications, such as professional diplomas and short courses, may open more doors. Continuing professional development (CPD) events are offered by the BPS Division of Occupational Psychology.

Some occupational psychologists pursue academic careers either after a period as a practitioner or by doing research for a Doctoral degree after a Masters and gaining a post as a university lecturer or researcher.