Occupational Psychology: What It Is and How It Works

Occupational psychology is a branch that seeks to explain human behavior, within the framework of work, to promote its effectiveness.
Occupational Psychology: What It Is and How It Works
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 19 March, 2024

Occupational psychology is a relatively new specialty of the behavioral sciences. In general terms, it’s the branch that studies and applies psychological theories and principles to the behavior of individuals in the framework of work.

This field is also called labor psychology, and until recently, it was known as industrial psychology. The journal Psicología desde el Caribe explains that it was assimilated as a subdiscipline at the end of the 19th century with the premise of favoring society from the analysis of the roles of workers in an organization, contemplating their performance and the conditions that influence it.

However, the name fell short of covering the different work activities that exist, including self-employment, so the term “occupational” was considered to be more in line with the object of study.

In a company or on an individual level, this branch of psychology’s main contribution is to prevent the activity from generating negative consequences on a person’s physical and mental health. Likewise, it helps to identify and develop individual potentialities, while increasing motivation.

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

~ Albert Schweitzer ~

The origins of occupational psychology

Occupational psychology is a field with an established tradition, although it hasn’t always had the same name. The oldest antecedent is a monograph prepared by Paracelsus entitled On the Miners’ Sickness and Other Miners’ Diseases, which dates from 1567. The author described the working conditions of these groups and the potential effects on their health.

Later, there were other investigative efforts, among which On the Diseases of Workers by Bernardino Ramazzini, stood out. He’s considered the “father of occupational medicine,” according to the American Journal of Public Health, as he documented his observations on the conditions of workers and taught courses oriented toward these problems.

The point is that centuries ago, the capacity of work to produce effects on people’s physical and mental health was already known. Although in these investigations, there was no knowledge of psychology, the researchers noted that work tasks also had emotional impacts.

Occupational psychology gained momentum after Wilhelm Wundt turned the study of behavior into an experimental science. This happened in 1879, when Wundt founded the first laboratory at the University of Leipzig, dedicated to analyzing behavior. Soon, work also became an object of study.

However, at first, occupational psychology was oriented toward productivity. The analyses were focused on finding methods that would guarantee the higher performance of employees. Although it prevails as a central concern of this branch, since the middle of the 20th century, great importance has been attached to the well-being of the worker.

Worker receives support as part of the company's occupational psychology
One of the purposes of occupational psychology is to understand human behavior and for this to favor job performance.

The field of study of occupational psychology

Occupational psychology comprises three major aspects. The first is job analysis. The main instrument used in this area is professionalism. This is a graphic description of the activities that must be carried out when carrying out a certain job, together with the necessary skills to carry it out.

The second point is the adaptation of the human being to a specific job. This includes the analysis of particular individuals in order to anticipate if they fit the requirements of the job or not. In the same way, they evaluate the possible adjustment to the mechanisms through which it will be possible to maintain motivation and develop the subject’s potential.

The third aspect is the adaptation of the work to the worker. It includes the study and management of environmental factors that favor or hinder work, as well as their effects on each individual person. From there, a health and safety policy and measures must emerge to protect the employee.

A group of workers receiving a safety talk, one of the fields contemplated in occupational psychology
Occupational psychology also covers health and safety policies in favor of the worker.

What is the panorama of this branch of psychology?

Occupational psychology has a growing presence in organizations, and its impact is increasing. In the coming years, the working world is expected to undergo great transformations as a result of the incursion of artificial intelligence and robotics in a more forceful way.

Therefore, it’s likely that in the next decade, there will be a significant change in the labor market. Many of the skills that are required up to now will fade into the background and other new ones will emerge. At the same time, the way in which functions are carried out will be radically changed.

Therefore, the figure of the occupational psychologist will be more strategic in organizations. Both the changes that are coming and their implications will require transformations in the attitude and skills of workers. This professional area has a great future.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • García-Ramos, T., Díaz-Juarbe, R. O., & Santiago-Estrada, S. (2013). Historicidad crítica de la psicología industrial/organizacional: hacia una nueva psicología del trabajo y las organizaciones. Psicología desde el Caribe, 30(1), 146-176.

  • Franco, G., & Franco, F. (2001). Bernardino Ramazzini: the father of occupational medicine. American Journal of Public Health, 91(9), 1382-1382.

  • Bakker, A. B., Rodríguez-Muñoz, A., & Derks, D. (2012). La emergencia de la psicología de la salud ocupacional positiva. Psicothema, 66-72.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.