“A good PhD is a finished PhD”: tips for completing your thesis from academics who’ve been there

Struggling to find the motivation to get through the final furlong of your PhD? Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology, shares some top tips to help you finish strong – with many thanks to Rob Briner, Kamal Birdi, Jane Ogden, Gail Kinman, Katrina Pritchard; and Rebecca Whiting for the quote in the title.

Picture of PhD student graduating

Studying for a PhD and writing the thesis is one of the most challenging undertakings in academic life. One of the difficulties is that there is no blueprint. Each research journey is different. Each thesis is unique. Some of us, and this includes me, probably spent too much time and energy emulating others. Then the realisation dawns that it’s yours and only yours to finish.

Writing the thesis is not a linear journey. There are stops and starts along the way. We start doubting our capacity as writers. We will wonder if our research will ever be good enough. Will people care? Or will they look down on our undertakings? Self doubt tends to creep in.

Motivation is also an issue. On the home stretch, which should be the final energetic lap, many of us get bored with our own words. The end is in sight, but energy levels dip, which often means that procrastination sets in.

What can we do on the final furlong? In no particular order, here are our top tips:

Make yourself a plan and timetable

Month by month at first. Week by week on the final stretch. Share this. Make it accountable. If you miss deadlines and milestones, rethink and learn from why this happened. If you were too ambitious, revise timelines but share this with your supervisor. If slippage happened because you simply didn’t write, reflect on why this happened. Don’t beat yourself up, but recognise that this was a slip and think of strategies to do better next time.

Create a reward system and reward chart

Maybe don’t hit the biscuit tin every time you write 500 words, but think of other treats. A walk in the park? A cup of your favourite tea? Relish and notice the reward. It will feel very satisfying to tick tasks off.

Divide tasks up into ‘intellectual’ and ‘housekeeping’

Some tasks are tough mental work, such as writing a meaningful conclusion. Others are more tedious, such as formatting tables, but these tasks still need to be done. So when you are feeling fresh, do the hard stuff. When you have brain fog, do the simpler tasks. This way, productivity is kept up.

Enough is enough

No thesis is perfect. A take-home of five to six contributions, clearly articulated, is better than a long list.

Divide your attention equally

Don’t fall into the trap of going over and over a certain section, but neglecting other equally important sections of your thesis. Use your chapter structure to ensure that you work across all chapters equally. It’s a common trap to neglect the conclusion. Use your abstract to articulate and shape what your key contributions are.

Chunking is your friend

Don’t think about writing thousands of words, or an entire chapter. Think about writing lots of 500 words. It will feel much more manageable.

Use your submission form to fix the end date

Do this as soon as realistically possible. Seeing the date in print makes it more real and will focus your energies.

Let go of perfection

A perfect thesis is a rare creature. Is this really what it’s all about? Doing doctoral research is an apprenticeship which prepares you for the next chapters of your life. Celebrate what you do well, and don’t mull on your weaker points. Good research is rarely perfect but thought provoking. That’s what it is all about.

Make a plan

Our final tip is not just to read ‘top tips’ but to plan how to put them into action. What are you going to tackle first of the above? Always remember – “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. Perfectionism and ambition are helpful, but should not deter and detract you from the final submission. It’s part of an academic’s life that we worry if our work is good enough, liked, cited and used by audiences. A thesis does not have to be perfect, but needs to document a learning journey.

We wish you well in your writing journey on the ‘final furlong’.

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How can we manage our organisations and families out of the COVID-19 crisis? 

As we move out of crisis mode and settle into new patterns of working, Professor Almuth McDowall shares her advice on managing work and family life over the coming months. 

In MayI had the opportunity to deliver an online webinar for Barclays Eagle Labs together with their CEO Ben Davey. We tackled important and profound questions, not only about how we manage work itimes of crisis, but also our families and wider networks. 

Ben shared his experience of managing work-life balance. Initially, he explained, he fell into the trap of working very long hours and not having enough time to rest and recuperate. Now he makes an extra effort to go out, get fresh air and then comes back to his desk feeling reinvigorated. I could relate to this so much. During the first two weeks of the crisis, I must admit that I barely slept or ate, as there was so much to do, so much change to manage. Things have settled down now and we are working virtually as teams and organisations. 

Ben asked me if I had any advice for how to make this happen effectively, particularly in international contexts. The research on virtual working tells us that teams work better if they have had initial face to face meeting and bonding time. Well, none of us has had this. It might be something to go back and revisit – have you agreed a set of principles for how your team will work? Has everyone signed up? Regarding international teams, it can be really important to establish and preserve local identity, particularly during this time of crisis and uncertainty. Maybe each team could agree on a ‘strapline’ that summarises their identity and ways of working? Then provide teams with the opportunity to express their needs for how they want to work with others. Provide regular ‘feedforward forums’ so that the spotlight is not only what needs to be done, but also how you work together.  

The attendees in our online session were as concerned about managing their families as they were about managing their work. Many of them had noticed that energy levels are starting to wane. Also, how do you communicate with young children and teenagers? As the situation is so uncertain, a good approach is to focus on the short and medium term. Think about what is precious to you as a family, and what you can control. No one can control the media, or government policy, but we can control how we communicate with each other. Having been stuck in our homes for so long, it can be easy to fall into a rut and take each other for granted. Make sure you actively seek opportunities to talk to each other and share experiences. 

Another question was about how to keep teenagers motivated to do their homework. I shared my own experience. My middle daughter is doing, or rather not doing (in a traditional sense) her GCSEs. At first, we had several heated arguments as I wanted her to do more work, yet she was lying on her bed and talking to her friends. Being honest, I had to adjust my own expectations. This is an unusual situation. She is at an age where her peer group is more important than family. Will anyone really care about the grades she gets in her GCSEs this year? I think not. So I now let her be and chat to her friends. She is happier for it, and so am I.  

How can we help young children make sense of the crisis? Well, limit exposure to news at home, as ‘big words’ said in a serious tone are likely to unsettle. Children appreciate honesty, so don’t pretend. But find a way for them to express themselves. It might be helpful to get them to start a scrapbook, or a journal, where they can draw and chart their experiences visually – then talk about what you see together.  

Finally, we talked about the importance and power of goals at work, and at home. At work, many of us have been in survival and crisis mode. Now might be the time to agree what the priorities for the next few months are and state these very clearly. Then check in on progress and give each other feedback about how things are going. Revisit and revise as necessary. The same applies at home. Is there something you want to learn as a family? Something that you have learned through the crisis which you want to take forward? Get everyone involved in planning. Express your vision – write this down or draw it – but be sure this is shared.  

The crisis is hard, and we are in this for the long haul. Focus on what you can control, this will help you to sustain motivation. Don’t forget – we are in this together. Talk, share and reach out to others where you can. 

Further Information: 

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Back to normal? The government is underestimating the scale of change for workers.

As the UK government looks for a path out of lockdown, Professor Almuth McDowall considers the psychological impact of transitioning to a new normal.

Picture of people waiting for the tube in London

On Sunday afternoon, we were on our way back from a socially distanced walk with three moderately enthusiastic teenagers when the phone rang. BBC Radio London asked if I was happy to discuss the Transport Secretary’s announcement that the government was considering a phased approach to businesses reopening their doors. The suggestion is to put a number of safety measures in place to safeguard individuals from getting infected, but also minimise pressures on transport and infrastructure.

For employers, the key propositions are to minimise the number of workers using any equipment, to stagger work start and finish times and to maximise home working. The idea is also to encourage people to engage in more active commuting, including cycling and walking.

Many organisations have of course been open and operational throughout the crisis, including our now much appreciated local shops, which have introduced social distancing measures such as limiting numbers allowed in at a time and protective screens.

But will the transition back to the workplace be as easy as some might suggest while extra precautionary measures are implemented?

When quizzed on the radio, I took a rather cautious and even cynical view. Quite frankly, I do not think that the implications of what will be a gigantic organisational change exercise have been properly thought through.

First, let’s think about infrastructure constraints. Many returning workers have children who, we hope, will return to normal nursery and/or school hours sometime soon. This would make it difficult for all workers to shift start and finish times, as there will be practical issues such as school pick up times to work around. Transport will also be a challenge for this reason, given that peak demand is also due to children travelling to and from school. 

Furthermore, not everyone lives in cycling or walking distance from their place of work, quite the contrary. Surely, we also must avoid a scenario where more people are taking to their cars and driving alone, as we are already witnessing in our neighbourhood, to avoid public transport. 

Let’s also think about who will and needs to return to work. There will be workers who are scared about returning. There are also people who will not be able to return, at least not for the foreseeable future, because they are vulnerable, or someone in their family is. 

On the other hand, there are people who are desperate to return, because they currently live and work in crammed conditions, or because they live in areas with insufficient connectivity.  

Each business has to start with a detailed analysis of how a phased return to a mix of onsite and virtual working will play out in practice and accommodate individual needs and preferences. This is not a quick solution, but takes time, skill and effort. 

Research tells us that to make virtual working effective, particularly during times of crisis and uncertainty, managers and leaders need to take an individual approach to help people feel secure and build up trust and effective ways of working. Again, this is no quick fix. 

Some organisations are getting this intuitively right, others not exactly. One of the keys is a combination of communication and clarification of expectations and roles. This will become much harder as businesses are required to adjust and manage a staged transition to open their doors again. If we are not careful, businesses will spend all their energies on managing logistics, rather than concentrating on the core business to keep their customers happy and deliver a good service.

The literature on organisational change firmly agrees on one issue. Change is hard and stressful, even where it is for the better. Humans are hardwired not to like it. This is why times are tough at the moment. Acknowledging this, and our own vulnerability is an important step to manage sustainable change. My fear is that the UK government is considering too complex a range of practical measures without due acknowledgement of the physiological impact on people. It’s time for a rethink.

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Managing staff who are working from home: business as usual?

Professor Gail Kinman, Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Kevin Teoh from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology share tips on how to manage staff who are working from home.

Empty office

Steps to manage the Covid-19 virus mean that working from home is now mandatory for many people. This will help contain the virus, but such a major shift in working practices will not be easy. Some employees will be working from home for the first time and may struggle to accommodate to their new environment. It may also pose challenges for managers who are required to ensure ‘business as usual’ but have little experience of managing people who work remotely.

The skills required to manage staff during these challenging times are quite different than those needed face to face. Below, we provide some guidance on how to manage remote workers effectively.

Set expectations from the outset signalling support and understanding

The move to remote working will make communication more challenging and you will have less insight into what staff are doing each day. The first step for any organisation is to communicate with all workers affected, setting out clearly the support you are offering, how you will communicate with them and the expectations you have for their performance.

In the current special circumstances, this may mean waving goodbye to previous management practices such as mandatory core hours and operating a flexible “work when you can, as much as you can” policy. Some workers will have challenging circumstances and may have little time or energy for uninterrupted home working. It is important to acknowledge these challenges from the outset and keeping conversation streams open will help you become aware of any changes in people’s circumstances. Also provide clear information on who staff can turn to for advice and support and issue regular updates.

A settling in period is crucial

Staff will need some time to process the change, access the necessary equipment and systems, establish channels of communication and negotiate and adjust work tasks. Do not make assumptions that people who work at home will be more productive as they have more flexibility and their commuting time is eliminated. People will typically take a lot longer to do things and be unable to work to full capacity, especially during the early days of home working. Keep reassuring your staff that you do not expect them to be as productive as usual – maybe the best that you can do in the short term is to identify priorities and work out how best to meet them. Ensure that you have a mechanism for staff to feed back on how things are working out for them. Double check also that appropriate hardware and software is in place. For instance, there are reports already that some organisations are running out of virtual protected network (VPN) licenses.

Be sensitive to role stress

People experience role overload when they are expected to fulfil multiple roles simultaneously without the resources to do so. Resources can be time, energy or attention. Role conflict occurs where fulfilling the demands of one role (e.g. work) is incompatible with meeting those of another (e.g. caring for children). Understandably, both role overload and conflict can be distracting and impair wellbeing and productivity.

Staff will have to dedicate considerable time and energy to craft a balance between their work demands and domestic responsibilities. They are also likely to be anxious about obtaining household provisions and need to monitor the health of themselves and their family members.

Build trust and avoid micromanaging

Building trust between you and your team is crucial. Jointly negotiated goals will help your staff feel engaged, productive and motivated. Deadlines can be set but, as discussed above, flexibility will be required as personal circumstances are likely to be subject to change. Bear in mind that the communication process should be two-way. It is important for managers to check in with staff to monitor their progress and their mental health, but your direct reports also have a responsibility to provide you with updates. Managers are unlikely to have the time to set up cumbersome and intrusive reporting processes, but avoid bombarding people with unnecessary requests, forms, procedures and guidelines.

Use meetings sparingly

Tools such as Skype and Zoom make organising meetings for remote workers straightforward but be aware that online meetings can be time-consuming. Ensuring that all staff members have an input is also challenging. Try not to organise meetings over lunchtime to ensure that staff have a break and are able to prepare meals for children. Send out clear meeting etiquette guidelines. Ensure that meetings are never booked backtoback, as they can become very draining. A shared diary will help mitigate this.

Be aware of the risks of being ‘always on’

Discourage staff from working long hours even if they are willing to do so, as they will be less effective and more vulnerable to health problems. Encourage people to have regular breaks away from their workstation throughout the day. As well as stopping work physically, staff should switch off psychologically to replenish their energies and to enable them to meet their domestic responsibilities. Role model the behaviour you expect from them, such as making it clear that there are times that you are not available, are resting or are meeting your other responsibilities.

Be aware of people’s personal circumstances and conscious of the challenges they are facing

What caring responsibilities do your direct reports have? Are they home-schooling? Do they have the necessary equipment and a quiet working environment? Some people may have access to a dedicated office, while others have to work on a kitchen table, a bedroom or the sofa. Encourage people to take steps to create boundaries (both physical and psychological) and avoid distractions wherever possible but accept that this will sometimes be inevitable. Children will interrupt meetings, dogs will bark and internet connections will inevitably fail.

Treat your staff as individuals

Your staff will experience the change to remote working in different ways. Some may feel anxious, while others will relish the challenge and break from routine. You will find that some people will need more support than others, so you could offer them short goal-setting meetings at the start of each day and a catch up at the end. Others, however, might find this intrusive and prefer to be left alone to get on with it. Be aware that some people will be prone to over-working and may need encouragement to switch off. Asking staff to share with you any difficulties they may be experiencing will help you gain insight into their individual circumstances, needs and preferences.

Encourage socialising and bonding

Working at home can be isolating; this will be a particular problem where staff are largely confined to their homes. Loneliness can reduce motivation and productivity and increase the risk of stress, anxiety and depression. It is important therefore for people to maintain social bonds and feel part of the team. Take some time before a meeting for people to share something personal. Encourage other social bonding opportunities such as ‘virtual coffee time’, a video chat over lunch, or a joint exercise session. Continue to celebrate people’s birthdays or other special occasions. Be creative – one manager we recently spoke to distributed a mini ‘pub quiz’ to help relieve the pressure and encourage team bonding.

Be kind, compassionate and respectful

Show genuine concern for people’s wellbeing and understanding of their personal circumstances. Provide praise and positive feedback so that people know their efforts are recognised and provide affirmation of confidence in your team. You can encourage staff to be open about any difficulties they are experiencing by disclosing that you too are struggling at times. People’s home environments are now their workspaces, but they should not feel that the organisation has moved in with them. It is important, therefore, that communication is measured and considerate.

What about your own wellbeing?

It is equally important that you show the same kindness and compassion to yourself. Expectations of managers are high, and many are now responsible for keeping the business afloat while endeavouring to support their staff through a major transition. Recognise that these are unusual times and it will be a learning experience for everyone.

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How to set up your home working space to support mental and physical health

Dr Rachel Lewis, Registered Occupational Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology shares her tips for creating a safe and productive work or study environment at home.

Home office

The coronavirus pandemic and ongoing lockdown have meant dramatic shifts in the way we work, much of which is beyond our control. Many of us are now working from home, sharing study space with housemates or family members and juggling childcare and other responsibilities into the mix. 

One thing we can take control of, however, is how we set up our workspace to support mental and physical health during this challenging time. The tips in this blog will help you to create an effective workspace, plan manageable routines and mitigate some of the stress that comes with adapting to a new way of work. 

Step 1: Choose your workspace 

As we continue to work remotely, it may be tempting to gravitate to your duvet or sofa and work in comfort, but doing so makes it difficult to manage the boundary between work and other areas of your life. 

Ideally, your workspace should be a separate area of your home that you can go to and leave as if you were going to work, whether that’s an office, desk or seat at your dining room table. This prevents disruption to the rest of your home and helps you psychologically to feel ready for work in that space. 

Step 2: Give your environment some love 

It’s amazing the difference that a few small touches can make to your work environment. Do you have access to natural light? Do you have a plant that could provide you with a more natural environment? While we’re in a state of uncertainty about how long lockdown could last, it’s important to create a space where you feel comfortable working. 

Think also about how to set up your desk to support your posture – could you put a few books under your laptop, or place a cushion behind your back, to help sit in a way that won’t lead to back or neck pain? Physical and mental health are closely linked, so by taking care to avoid aches and pains, you’ll be helping your mind too. 

Finally, scan the area to make sure it’s safe – are there any stray laptop wires that could be trip hazards to you or a family member, for example? 

Step 3: Define your working hours 

Without the physical boundaries that come from commuting to work, it’s tempting to just work around the clock. To ensure you take time to rest and recuperate, set (and stick to) a time to finish work each day. This time may have changed from your usual hours to accommodate other commitments – you could specify your new working hours in your email signature, so people know when you will be available. 

If possible, try to use separate devices for work and leisure – if you have been provided with a laptop or phone line for work, turn these off at the end of your working day to avoid the temptation to keep connected. 

Step 4: Be kind to yourself 

The situation we’re living through represents a significant period of readjustment, so don’t be too hard on yourself if working from home still feels alien. Set yourself goals, but be prepared for those to flex sometimes. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others and let’s help each other through until we meet in person again. 

Further Information: 

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What can organizational psychology tell us about the calibre of our political leaders?

Organizational psychology provides substantial evidence about the characteristics of a successful leader, yet as Dr Almuth McDowall explains, this knowledge is not consistently used when considering the suitability and capability of our political leaders in the UK.

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK (23261468319)

By Chatham House (Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It never fails to astonish me that much of what we have learned from applying the science of the mind to the context of work does not seem to have made much of an impact on the world of politics. Politicians, by definition, are leaders – so we should apply leadership theories to our assessments of their performance. Politicians’ day job is politics, but surely they need to bring the right knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs) – things that we would measure in any other job to see if people are suited to what they do.

In 2007, Jo Silvester and Christina Dykes published a longitudinal study of prospective political candidates. The  researchers conducted a job analysis, which is the first step in organizational psychology for a range of activities including selection and training, to draw up a competency framework – what do politicians need to be good at? The resulting competencies (KSAs) looked very much like those we would expect to find in other organisational contexts, including ‘intellectual skills’, ‘relating to people’ and ‘leading and motivating’; the only politics-specific competency was the level of ‘political conviction’. Performance, as measured in this way, predicted political performance, but so did their critical thinking capacity as measured by psychometric tests. So what can we learn from this study? Political performance can be measured, and surely it should be transparent to both politicians, but also voters, what marks ‘good’ performance in this context. This study found no evidence for any gender differences either.

So how do Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn fare when measured against aspects of this framework, based on what we have observed of their leadership during the general election campaign? I remain unconvinced that either displayed critical thinking capacities if we take the election manifesto of either party as a performance output. The conservative manifesto was ill judged, alienated core voters (the dementia tax….) and overall just did not convince enough people that the Tories were worth re-electing. The Labour manifesto scored higher on political conviction, but had almost no suggestions for how any changes might be funded, putting strategy before any references to feasibility of implementation.

What about each party leader’s capacity to lead and motivate? Corbyn and his party clearly succeeded in mobilising grass roots support and also mobilising the young electorate which had absented itself from the Brexit referendum.

‘Communication skills’ and ‘intellectual skills’ are another aspect of the model of political performance. Taking reactions to the recent terrorist attacks as an example, May failed to show any human reaction to what were two sets of tragic events in short sequence, at a time when the general public is in great need of reassurance and support. Corbyn, on the other hand, attributed the happenings as a reaction to the UK’s involvement in war in Muslim countries; not a correct inference, as neutral countries have also been subject to attacks.

In terms of leadership, Theresa May seemed uncertain during what political commentators unanimously refer to as a disastrous and misguided election campaign. Her chief aides have now resigned, which throws into question her judgment on which advisors to surround herself with. Good advisors and teams are crucial to any political role. Modern life is so fast-moving, complex and, as recent events have demonstrated, unpredictable that no one person can lead a party, let alone a country, on their own.

In organizational psychology terms, there is a substantial body of research which demonstrates that ‘shared leadership’ across teams and organisations leads to better performance and better outcomes all around. Yet, in politics as well as in corporate life, we tend to pin our hopes on the one person at the top. Surely the time has come to change this, and make political leadership a more balanced, fair and transparent process than is currently unfolding in front of our eyes.

I grew up in Germany, learning in English textbooks about the Anglosaxon culture, about the power of the voice of the people and the unique British democratic process. Yet, recently, I no longer feel so certain that the current political system is serving us well and reading the political press in my home country, it seems other voices in Europe agree.

The time seems to have come to rethink politics and democracy to instil fairer and more transparent processes to ensure that a) politicians are up to their job and b) voters can make informed decisions.

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Birkbeck’s Commitment to Occupational and Organizational Psychology – a new doctoral route at National Level?

This article is by Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology (a.mcdowall@bbk.ac.uk)

businesswoman-1901130_1920Birkbeck has a long and proud history of pioneering activities applying the science of psychology to the world of work. Birkbeck’s MSc programme was the first of its kind in the UK, and in fact coined the term ‘occupational psychology’. We remain the only dedicated work psychology department in the UK. Other countries use ‘organizational psychology’ (reflected in the current name for our department), ‘industrial and organizational psychology’, or simply ‘work psychology’. But regardless of the exact words, we all have a common aim, which is to apply our expertise to work activities.

The profession of psychology has seen several changes in the UK, not least that several titles have been protected by law for some years, including educational, counselling, clinical, sports and also,of course, occupational psychology. The intention is to provide assurance to the public, so that people know that a qualified psychologist bearing such titles has undergone rigorous and robust training, and is regulated by the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC).

While the other strands of applied psychology have long recognised the need to train to doctoral level through education delivered by universities, occupational psychology has been slightly different in that there has been only one qualification, delivered by the British Psychological Society (BPS), which leads to eligibility for ‘Chartership’, the gold standard for the profession.

But are there changes afoot about how and by whom the qualification is delivered in the future?

Together with a committed group of academics and practitioners, I have been working over the last four years towards the agreement of new standards at a doctoral level for occupational psychology, which were approved by the BPS in late autumn 2016. We briefed members of the society at the Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference in January 2017.

The objective of these standards is to (wording adapted near verbatim from the standards) enable practitioners to:

  • Engage in effective, ethical and reflective practice;
  • Be adept at formulating psychological activities across all five content areas of occupational psychology;
  • Apply evidence-based psychological skills and knowledge to maximise individual and organisational effectiveness;
  • Demonstrate competence to apply the consultancy cycle having provided evidence relating to all stages across this framework;
  • Acquire a breadth of areas of knowledge underpinned by the appropriate professional skills;
  • Be prepared for lifelong learning and development as commensurate for an independent applied psychology practitioner.

The underlying philosophy for the new standards is that they are flexible and broad, and will enable potential education providers to offer relevant doctoral level qualifications which take a unique and considered approach. But the common elements have to be that individuals practice ethically and with reflection, can make sense of how complex organisations are, and work through projects from the initial identification of what needs to be done through to eventual evaluation, drawing on best evidence at all times.

The profession of occupational psychology has seen many changes, as large departments have been down sized and/ or abandoned, and practitioners are now likely to be working in independent practice. This has meant that our work is perhaps less visible to those who don’t know or understand what we do. But the reality is that businesses need people, as in our knowledge economy it’s what we have in our heads, rather than infrastructure or technology, which equates competitive advantage.

This is the focus for our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes here at Birkbeck. We are now considering a new doctoral, route, too. Do get in touch by email or in the comments below if this would be of interest to you, as we are keen to engage with potential students during our scoping phase.

Further information:

This blog forms part of the ‘School of BEI’s OP week’. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to learn more about studying in the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck!

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Going to university: how to start

This post was written by Professor Patrick Tissington, head of Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology. Here, Professor Tissington offers advice to new students beginning their courses all over the UK and beyond on how to get the most out of the university experience. this article first appeared on Prof Tissington’s blog on September 12 2016.  

And so it’s the time of year when thousands of students embark on the Great Adventure that university is. Having had the privilege of tutoring students through this transition for nearly twenty years, I wanted to share my experience to help with this important and exciting time. In this blog, I will cover how to approach the start of your university career. Further blogs will top you up as you go.

The points I am going to make are summarised as:

  • Join in
  • Balance
  • Find the right job
  • Begin with the end in mind

Join in

All the evidence points to students who do well, enjoy their time at university and get the most out of it are the ones who feel part of the university in a very personal way. These days all institutions have vast arrays of clubs and societies for their students which are usually supported financially. So there are so very many options for interests you can pursue outside of your studies and they will be far cheaper than you can find elsewhere. It might seem odd for me to start by telling you to look for things to do outside of lecture time, but it is with good reason. Look for the ones that seem most fun to you. If you played hockey at school, you might want to carry this on and make a bee-line for like-minded hockey folk. On the other hand, going to university is a chance to reinvent yourself and you could decide that you don’t want to be known as a hockey player any longer and want to try rock climbing, chess or ballroom dancing. Even if you aren’t sure, join several clubs and see which ones you want to carry on with. But make sure you do keep at least one going. It is your way to get to know people outside of your course and will broaden your experience. There could be opportunities to put it on your CV but that really shouldn’t be your driving force. University is a time to broaden your mind in all kinds of ways, so make the best of the very many opportunities available to you.

Oh, and yes I do realise that these days with the fees, you will have in mind always what you are going to do for a living when you graduate. But my experience is that those who have an open mind frequently find they gain far more benefit than those who just focus on building an interesting CV. Do make sure you are doing things that interest, challenge and entertain you. Perhaps do things that frighten you a bit!

As I said at the start, there is a hard headed rationale for this advice. If you are part of a club, you will feel more involved in the university. This means you are far more likely to do as well as you possibly can in your studies. And believe me, the experience of being at a university that you feel involved with is something that stays with you for life. Personally I spent time working for the student magazine when I was an undergraduate at the University of Westminster. This gave me free CDs, free entry to gigs and friendship with people across the university. I loved it! I also joined the mountaineering club but that didn’t actually suit me in the end. So don’t be afraid to drop something if it isn’t working out. But don’t be flakey. Pick one or two things that you are going to do and throw yourself into them.

Balance

The start of university is one of the very few times in life when you are able to just go up to someone and start talking to them. This can be intimidating to do at first but remember that despite appearances, pretty well everyone will be feeling the same way so dive in and meet people.

But don’t feel you have to go to EVERY party. I have seen time and time again students get carried away by freshers week and carry on partying for weeks and suddenly find it is exam time and they haven’t prepared. You must always remember the core reason of being at University – learning. And yes I did say learning and not getting a good degree. If you set out to learn everything you can about your subject, all the things about study, exams and getting a job will fall into place. So work on balanced approach. If you have been out socialising more nights than not, you need to take a long hard look at why you have gone to university. This will not be sustainable either financially, physically or in the end, educationally. So have the guts to say no to invitations sometimes.

 

Find the right job

My aim is to provide advice that will be relevant to all students who are starting at University this year. However, I work at Birkbeck, University of London where the majority of our students have been working for a while. So, some of the following might be less relevant to some of them.

I worked my way through university but at the time, this was rare. But for you, unless you are very lucky, it is inevitable. So think again about balance. Find a job that will give you what you need in terms of pay but also isn’t going to be so tedious or stressful it will affect your studies or your enjoyment of life. Of course you need to be realistic and you aren’t going to find a job that gives you flexible hours and pays you large amounts of money to do fun things. But also remember what your value to an employer might be. As an intelligent, resourceful person, you might find there are ways of building from a basic bar job into something more interesting and better paid. People I knew worked in betting shops and found great ways of increasing responsibility and being better paid. Others did out of hours admin. As for me, I ran a market stall, trained as a tour guide and was in the Army Reserve. I don’t recommend you follow my example exactly as these aren’t exactly normal things to do, but hopefully you get the point about being creative when it comes to earning money. Of course the ideal is to have a job which will help you when you leave. Woman stacking shelves in supermarketSupermarkets for example have very good management training programmes and will look very favourably on any shop floor experience you have had. Anything that needs you to deal with the public or manage staff will be really useful. Be creative in your ways of earning. I know one student who is paying her way by buying things from charity shops and selling them on eBay for a profit. She has backup plans having qualified as a life guard and experience as a barista so there are options available to her.

635919692215901891-1513674337_baristaBut the balance idea comes in again. I have seen people get so engaged in their part time job, it has encroached on their studies. This is a bad mistake. Scrimp and save so you have to work less to support yourself rather than taking extra shifts to buy clothes.

And a word of warning as there is also a life lesson to be learned. Things that look too good to be true usually are. That is, offers to make easy money are usually scams. You will need to work for your money. But it is all good experience. I firmly believe that no work experience is wasted so labouring on a building site, working in a call centre or shelf stacking all give real insights into the word of work as well as providing much needed money to support you as you study.

 Begin with the end in mind

And my final advice for this first blog is one that comes from Stephen Covey’s excellent “Seven habits of effective people”. Think long and hard about what you want to have achieved when you graduate. Be really really specific about it. What do you want to be thinking and feeling as you walk across the platform to receive your degree? Do you want to be sure that you have landed the graduate job? Do you want to have got the best marks in all subjects that you possibly could have? Do you want to be looking back on your time at university as a time of fun, learning and growth? Spend time writing this down. Visualise exactly what you want to feel on that day.

students1

Having done this, now plan backwards. How will you achieve these feelings? What do you need to have done in the final year to achieve this? What in the second year (or third too if you are studying for four years)? What in the first year? And so what do you need to do this first term? No really. What do you need to do this term? And by half way through the term? By the end of this month? So what do you need to do this week. Write it down. This is an absolute must. By writing things down we make them more formal and we are far more likely to actually do them.

So that’s it. The key to a successful university experience is balance. Don’t overdo the work but don’t under do it. Do have a social life but don’t over-do it.

I will be back in a few weeks with tips on how lectures are different from lessons. How to get the best out of your lecturers and many other things. But if you would like to get the full details about all my advice, then it’s in a book.9781446266496

I wrote it with a former student who, despite being the first person in his family EVER to go to university, he got a first AND had a great time. His motivation for writing the book was that if he could do well at university, everyone should learn from his experience so anyone could achieve. I too struggled to find out what I was supposed to do at university and only really stumbled across the way of succeeding just before my finals. We both want to help students get the best out of university. And not only from their studies.

Read this article on Professor Tissington's blog

Read this article on Professor Tissington’s blog

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Santa’s Job: An Occupational Health Psychology Perspective

This December, Kevin Teoh (Department of Organizational Psychology, Centre for Sustainable Working Life) makes some light-hearted observations on the psychosocial working conditions of Santa Claus.

Santa Claus has a tough job (By Jonathan G Meath (Jonathan G Meath) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Santa Claus sighs as he reviews his list of kids who have been naughty, and then goes over those who have been marked nice. The increasing global population means the number of children on his list grows with each passing year. Currently, it’s estimated to contain the names of between 152 and 526 million children (Bump, 2011; Svan, 2009), meaning a lot of presents to sort out and deliver. This is concerning, as there is ample evidence demonstrating that high workloads are linked with poorer health and lower job satisfaction (Goetz et al., 2013; Ree et al., 2014). Gosh, a sick and unhappy Santa, we wouldn’t want that.

Santa’s demanding job

As Christmas approaches and work intensifies, Santa’s standard 9-5 hours five days a week gradually extends into the evening and the weekends, increasing the number of hours worked. The seasonal nature of work faced by Santa and his team exists in other industries as well. Accountants during tax filing season go through a similar increase in their working hours, which has a detrimental impact on their health and work-life balance (Sweeney & Summers, 2002). Putting aside the amazing feat delivering presents around the world on December 25th, cognitive functioning after more than 24 hours of continuous wakefulness is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration level that is over the legal limit (Dawson & Reid, 1998). If we are concerned for the safety and wellbeing of Santa, perhaps he shouldn’t be operating his sleigh under such conditions.

While the job of Santa is likely to be very secure, I wonder whether his crew of elves and reindeers experience similar precarious working conditions that many seasonal workers do. Unfortunately, across Europe the high prevalence of temporary contracts faced by such workers not only increases job insecurity, but temporary workers often have fewer employment rights, perform more hazardous jobs, have poorer working conditions and are paid less (Hesselink et al., 2015). But surely though, given the charitable nature of Santa he must be as close to the best employer you will find?

Taking control of your work environment

Santa has little influence over the fact the busy festive season peaks at the end of December. This isn’t desirable considering the importance control at work has in relation to worker happiness and health. However, the reality of many jobs is the presence of external factors beyond a person’s control. To manage this, job crafting has emerged with growing support as an approach encouraging workers to alter aspects of their own jobs that they can (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). We actually see Santa himself do this in trying to manage his big deadline. While many countries see December 25th as the day Santa visits with presents, Santa has staggered the dates on which he visits different countries. For example, he distributes gifts in the Netherlands on the 5th of December (as Sinterklaas), before moving onto Germany, Switzerland and neighbouring countries the next day. On the 18th, you will find him as St. Nicholas in the Ukraine, while on the 6th of January a Father Frost gives out gifts to many children of a Russian Orthodox background.

In addition, we see that Santa has crafted part of the job for himself, and delegated aspects of the role to others. Across the world we see Santa as the bearer of gifts and happiness. However, in many cultures Santa partners local representatives who handle issues relating to discipline and punishment. The distributed work often involves beating misbehaving children or taking them away in sacks, and is carried out by Santa’s assistant Krampus (Austria and Germany), Schmutzli (Switzerland) or Zwarte Pieten (Belgium and the Netherlands), amongst others. It is not clear why he has crafted his job in this way. It could be to manage the overwhelming workload, or perhaps it’s an aspect he does not feel comfortable about or even competent at. Regardless, it seems to contribute to Santa’s success.

Why is Santa, Santa?

Santa-Hat-webConsidering these points above, what motivates Santa to work through such difficult working conditions? He is likely to be eligible for retirement, and while he may be doing it for the fame it is unlikely that the role provides a strong financial incentive. It is, however, far more likely that Santa draws meaning and purpose from this job of his. We know that individuals working or volunteering with charity and religious organisations are motivated by their values and their propensity for prosocial behaviour (Cnaan et al., 1993). Furthermore, having a sense of purpose and meaning at work is positively linked with better work and general wellbeing, engagement and performance (Shuck & Rose, 2013). Focusing specifically on Santa, two studies (Fletcher & Low, 2008; Hancock, 2013) involving a group of Santa Clauses found that these actors frequently perceived authenticity in their role as Santa. The job was not only because of the money, but was driven by a sense of recognition that they were doing something worthwhile, bringing happiness to the kids and making it a magical experience for them.

From a distance, it seems that Santa has most things under control. Yes – it is not a perfect working environment, but Santa has taken charge of his work environment, moving deadlines and empowering partners to work with him where possible. He appears to be very much in touch with why he is doing this job, providing meaning and purpose to his role. There is still scope to improve, a better understanding of the demands will help develop and target resources relevant to Santa. Listening to and appreciating Santa is also imperative. After all, if we don’t support and believe in Santa, how can we expect Santa to continually believe in himself?

*A longer version of this article first appeared in the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology Newsletter (2015, Volume 12, Issue 2).

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References

  • Bump, P. (2011, December 14). Santa’s Christmas Eve Workload, Calculated. The Atlantic
  • Cnaan, R.A., Kasternakis, A., & Wineburg, R.J. (1993). Religious people, religious congregations, and volunteerism in human services: Is there a link? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 22, 133-151.
  • Dawson, D. & Reid K. (1998). Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment. Nature, 388, 235.
  • Fletcher, R. & Low, D. (2008). Emotional Labour and Santa Claus. ANZMAC 2008, December 1-3, Melbourne, Australia.
  • Goetz, K., Musselmann, B., Szecsenyi, J., & Joos, S. (2013). The influence of workload and health behaviour on job satisfaction of General Practitioners. Family Medicine, 45, 2, 95-101.
  • Hancock, P.G. (2013). ”Being Santa Claus’: the pursuit of recognition in interactive service work. Work, Employment & Society, 27, 6, 1001-1020.
  • Hesselink, J.K., Verbiest, S., & Goudswaard, A. (2015). Temporary workers. OSH Wiki: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
  • Ree, E., Odeen, M., Eriksen, H.R., Indahl, A., Ihlebæk, C., Hetland, J., & Harris, A. (2014). International Subjective health complaints and self-rated health: Are expectancies more important than socioeconomic status and workload? Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 21, 3, 411-420.
  • Shuck, B. & Rose, K. (2013). Reframing employee engagement within the context of meaning and purpose: Implications for HRD. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 15, 4, 341-355.
  • Svan, K. (2009). Santa Claus at Risk. Faculty of Science, University of Gothenburg.
  • Sweeney, J.T. & Summers, S.L. (2002). The effect of the busy season workload on public accountants’ job burnout. Behavioural Research in Accounting, 14, 1, 223-245.
  • Wrzesniewski, A. & Dutton, J.E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26, 2, 179-201.
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Emotional rescue: how to stop your employees burning out

This article was contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, Reader in Organizational Psychology, and Dan Vacassin, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s MSc Organizational Behaviour and Director of Indigo Gold.Businessman asleep at his desk on white background

Sometimes it seems as though it’s no longer enough for employees just to turn up for work and do their jobs as well as they can.  Today, many organisations demand varying amounts of what is known as emotional labour, a phenomenon that sits apart from actually doing the job. Emotional labour manifests itself in a number of ways, but here we are referring to a perceived need to ‘Live the brand’ – to strain every sinew in a bid to achieve the cultural utopia envisioned by the leadership team.

This is not healthy. At best, it can leave employees so exhausted by the energy they put into ‘getting their game face on’ that they have little left to do their jobs properly. At worst, we’ve seen it lead to cases of burnout, where the emotional demands placed on individuals have left them no longer able to function.

While many of society’s ills seem nowadays to be subjected to inflated terminology (for instance we no longer seem to have heavy colds, it is always flu) burnout is very real and its effects can be shocking to witness. In our experience, burnout tends to happen not because individuals work hard, but more because they become emotionally immersed in their work, to the detriment of everything else.

This is not to suggest that presenting a strong brand to the customer is a bad thing. Equally, customer-facing employees have a certain responsibility to embody that brand. We are talking instead about a deeper emotional contract demanded of employees, playing to a need to ‘fit in’ which may be a unique human condition.

Alleviating the burden of emotional labour, as with other culture-related issues, must start at the top. Very often, investigating a case of burnout uncovers insecurities among the leadership team, with senior managers finding it hard to judge when an organisation is working at or close to its optimal level and so continue to push relentlessly towards their version of utopia.

As well as the emotional fatigue it causes, the emotional labour around being constantly ‘on message’ can also stifle fresh ideas and creativity, while negating attempts to promote the diversity of the workplace in terms of personality types and behaviours. The whole point of creativity and diversity is that they involve breaking away from perceived notions of the norm; if people feel they must always behave in a certain way in order to get on, then the norm becomes all-pervasive.

We all have a responsibility to learn, to improve and to better ourselves in whatever career we have chosen. So why not let people get on with doing precisely that, instead of focusing on whether they’re sufficiently on message? You might just keep them burning brightly, instead of burning out.

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