Psy masters: A guide to the occupational psychology profession

Occupational psychologists aim to improve people’s experience of work. Profession head Sonia Pawson and DWP chief psychologist Antonia Dietmann share common misconceptions and how they fell in love with the profession
Antonia Dietmann (left), Sonia Pawson (right)

By Civil Service World

10 Nov 2023


Let’s start with the basics – what is occupational psychology? 

Occupational psychology is about work in all its forms. It is the science of how employees (both seeking and in work), teams and whole organisations behave. We use our empirical, theoretical and methodological expertise to improve the working experience for employees and the effectiveness and productivity of the organisation. It involves the application of scientific psychological knowledge in five areas: psychological assessment at work; learning, training and development; leadership, engagement and motivation; wellbeing at work; and work design, organisational change and development.

Being part of a regulated profession, we are both chartered – by the British Psychological Society (BPS) – and registered, with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Being a ‘something’ psychologist, like an occupational or clinical or forensic or coaching psychologist, is protected by law. This means only people with specific qualifications and who are regulated by the HCPC can use those titles.

The route to occupational psychologist registered status starts with a BPS-approved BSc Psychology and MSc Occupational Psychology. Then you can secure a job to start gathering work experience under the guidance of a supervisor to become a chartered psychologist. This is a doctoral-level qualification where you write a portfolio of work experience against those five areas of occupational psychology. After completing all that, we can apply for registration with the HCPC. The civil service champions and requires these high-level professional qualifications for our occupational psychology posts given the significant public impact of our work.

And what kind of work do occupational psychologists do in government? 

The civil service is a significant employer of occupational psychologists. Through collective people interventions, they are playing a big role in creating safe, skilled and productive organisations and their impact is felt right across the civil service.

Lots of government departments have specific occupational psychology posts, so you need the qualifications we’ve mentioned. Then there are many other people in the profession who work in positions that don’t require those qualifications but have found a natural home for their skills – in human resources, for instance, or social research. There are about 100 psychology posts with a further 150 colleagues across the wider profession in non-psychology roles. The largest groups of occupational psychologist posts are in the Department for Work and Pensions, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, and College of Policing with quite a large group in the Cabinet Office and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. The work we do is so varied, which is one of the wonderful aspects of the profession.

You will find psychologists applying the science of psychology to strengthen delivery for ministers and the public, and developing the performance, motivation and wellbeing of our people. To give a flavour of the breadth of work, it includes: recruiting fast streamers, police officers, prison officers, and armed forces personnel; investigating air accidents; designing and evaluating training programmes to develop skills and knowledge; and analysing behavioural intentions of hostile states and agents.

To be more specific, what do your roles involve?

Antonia Dietmann: There are three parts to mine. First, I lead a small team that gives evidence-based, specialist occupational psychology input to make more effective public policy and operational implementation decisions. Secondly, I provide professional leadership for our cadre of psychologists who work in Jobcentre Plus delivering employment support for some of our most vulnerable customers. Then, as DWP head of profession, I represent our profession’s interests internally and across government on issues such as pay, capability and grading.

Sonia Pawson: My current ‘day job’ as director of government skills involves providing strategic leadership and management to the central, multidisciplinary teams responsible for improving the knowledge, skills and networks of all civil servants. This includes leading the Government Campus, Curriculum, Fast Stream and Emerging Talent teams in delivering business and government reform objectives. I get to apply my expertise across the five areas of occupational psychology daily. As a member of the senior civil service and Government People Group executive, I advise on strategic projects. For example, I’m currently senior responsible officer for the ‘recruiting with success profiles’ training refresh. As head of the cross-government occupational psychology profession, I provide leadership on all cross-cutting matters including recruitment and retention, career pathways and professional practice standards.

Are there any common misunderstandings around occupational psychology? 

We’re often confused with occupational therapy or occupational health. These are different professions that are unconnected with psychology. People also often think all types of psychologists do therapy for mental health problems. Occupational psychologists don’t deliver therapy, but will help people with a range of mental and physical health problems to start, stay and succeed in employment or training.

And how did you both come to be working in this field? 

AD: I fell in love with the profession in a third-year module on work psychology at university and knew it was the career for me. My dad was also a social work/clinical psychologist starting out in family therapy and in later years lecturing in human resource management, which came to overlap with my interests in occupational psychology. After my MSc, I joined the Ministry of Defence as a higher psychologist conducting research projects to understand views of armed forces personnel, with the evidence informing military HR policy.

SP: My first degree was actually in criminology. Upon graduating I secured a role with the HM Prison Service as a psychological assistant. I got to experience first-hand the impact of applying the science of psychology to real-world problems in a range of different areas. It’s fair to say it didn’t take long for me to catch the psychology bug. My vision has long been to extend the reach and impact of occupational psychology in policy and decision-making. 

Can you tell us about a time when you have seen occupational psychology make a real difference to a policy or outcomes in your work? 

We see this every day through the rich and varied work across the civil service. Our occupational psychology colleagues ensure the right people are selected to lead our prisons, police forces and armed forces. They work with DWP customers who have complex health conditions to secure training or employment. 

“One customer said they could see a future for themselves again following tailored support from an occupational psychology colleague”

AD: In DWP I regularly hear about the meaningful difference colleagues are making to customers. For example, following the tailored support a customer had received from an occupational psychology colleague, they described themselves as being able to see a future for themselves again. Colleagues working within HR ensure that team leaders have the right skills to lead their team’s delivery or that our civil service recruitment practices are fair, reliable and valid. Occupational psychologists have developed the suite of civil service tests and the success profile framework. Through our high-quality research we ensure employees in the civil service and armed forces have a voice in developing employment policies. An excellent example of this is the annual armed forces continuous attitude survey, which has been led by occupational psychology for the MoD for 30-plus years.  

How has the profession changed since you began working in the civil service? 

We have become more connected across the civil service, which is more efficient and has greatly enriched the professional community. We both remember fondly the MoD and HM Prison and Probation Service annual occupational psychology conference/groups. Now we are doing this increasingly on a civil service basis. In recent years we’ve embraced new technology to do this, for example with online conferences and learning events, and our community group on Knowledge Hub. 

We come together to solve the collective challenges we face by discussing them at the civil service Occupational Psychology Profession Board, which was formed three years ago under the reinvigorated civil service head of profession role. Common challenges include our development, visibility, and recruitment. Given the societal impact of our work, we demand the high qualifications of chartered and registered status. This relies on the academic sector and other employers also promoting these standards, which have changed over the years and are presenting us with a recruitment pipeline challenge. We are starting to work with the BPS to address this. And most importantly over this time, we’ve seen new departments and agencies realise the benefits of employing occupational psychologists in dedicated and other posts.

What are your priorities for the profession in the next few years? 

Our board has agreed five strategic priorities for 2023. The first is to increase the visibility of the profession by connecting with closely-aligned professions, such as HR and Government Science and Engineering. The second is to develop a clearly defined entry and progression standard. We have achieved this with our new skills and standards document, which will soon be on GOV.UK. 

Thirdly, we have committed to develop a career framework that aligns professional development with civil service frameworks and that can be used in conjunction with other career pathways. The fourth aim is to develop and promote a cross-government selection and testing policy. We are nearly ready to deliver this. Finally, we are delivering a series of learning and networking events and sharing best practice and have held three learning events and a conference so far this year, including launching five cross-civil service projects for our trainees.

“If your policy or project has anything to do with the experiences of people in work, then our profession will have relevant evidence”

How can people in other disciplines work most effectively with your profession?  

The first step is to find us and involve us. We know we’re a small profession so other professions might not know about us. Hence doing articles like this one. If your policy, initiative or project has anything to do with the experiences of people in work – from joining, performing, and exiting that work – then occupational psychology will have relevant evidence. Find one of us to talk to. However, we are a small profession without a central team and profession members within departments might be supporting other priorities. There’s always more opportunity for occupational psychology support than people available. We’re keen to support business areas make the case for dedicated occupational psychology posts so they can benefit from the expertise we offer. 

What advice would you have for anyone in a related profession keen to learn more about your work? 

We would be happy to invite any other heads of profession to one of our board meetings. Colleagues can read more about occupational psychology in general on the BPS website and our profession’s page on GOV.UK will soon be updated. 

Antonia Dietmann is DWP’s chief psychologist and head of profession for occupational psychology. Sonia Pawson is the Cabinet Office’s director of government skills (interim), head of the Fast Stream and Emerging Talent teams, and head of the cross-government occupational psychology profession

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