by Peter Warr

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Origins of the Institute of Work Psychology

The Institute of Work Psychology (IWP) has carried out research continuously in Sheffield since its establishment in 1968.  It then had a different name and source of funding.

In the 1960s, university psychology departments focussed almost entirely on experiments in the laboratory with university students or rats as their ‘subjects’.  Beginning students of psychology had almost no exposure to field research, theory-based occupational studies were extremely rare, very few psychologists worked as practitioners in organizations, and across the country there were almost no commercial psychological consultancies.  It was common for psychologists to describe themselves as ‘behavioural scientists’ rather than with the suspicion-inducing title ‘psychologist’, and almost no students looked for careers in the occupational field.

The University of Sheffield had created a new Department of Psychology in 1960, appointing Dr Harry Kay as its initial professor.  Harry had previously been a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Oxford, and his distinguished professional record included being President of the Experimental Psychology Society and a Council member of the British Psychological Society.  His research had mainly been in the laboratory, but he was academically unusual for the period in having a strong desire to develop psychological ideas for application in the wider world.  Harry Kay was the founder of what became today’s Institute of Work Psychology through establishment of its earlier version – the Social and Applied Psychology Unit.

The Medical Research Council

            Between 1964 and 1967, a committee of the Medical Research Council (MRC) reviewed the scientific needs of applied (excluding clinical) psychology.  MRC had long operated (for instance) by reviewing a scientific area to assess whether additional support from the Council could substantially advance scientific knowledge.  (In some cases, a reduction in MRC support might be recommended.)  In part, the 1964-1967 review arose from MRC’s historical involvement in health-related aspects of occupational psychology; the Council had been principal sponsor of the Industrial Fatigue Health Board from 1918 and the Industrial Health Research Board from 1928.  Furthermore, no other British government research council at the time was responsible for applied psychology.  The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) had just been created (in 1965), but was itself beset with financial and other problems.  (It became the Economic and Social Research Council – ESRC – in 1983, after an influential government minister obtained considerable publicity for arguing that ‘social studies’ did not meet the criteria for being ‘scientific’.)

            MRC’s 1964-1967 review of applied psychology concluded that the field was nationally important but that its academic base required strengthening:  academic education should be expanded, and the Council should fund an additional long-term research unit.  Based on a proposal from the Sheffield Department of Psychology, MRC decided that this new unit would be located at the University of Sheffield from 1 October 1968, with Harry Kay as its Honorary Director.  In that part-time honorary role, Harry would work with a full-time Assistant Director (Peter Warr, previously a Lecturer in Social Psychology in the Department), and as in other units academic staff would be employed by the Medical Research Council.

The Social and Applied Psychology Unit

            Harry and Peter chose the name ‘Social and Applied Psychology Unit’ (SAPU), and its initial terms of reference emphasized ‘applied cognitive studies’.  With a general concern for ‘factors influencing productivity and efficiency’, organizational research was proposed into attitudes, motivation, learning and decision-making, accompanied by laboratory investigations with newly-available on-line computers.  At the time, interactive computer-based investigations were almost unknown, requiring both the construction of specialized equipment and the skills to create tailor-made programs and interfaces.  (SAPU staff included two technicians.)

As with other units of the Medical Research Council, previous and potential progress would be assessed every five years through written reports of achievements and the submission of new research proposals.  At each review, an evaluation committee visited the Unit to discuss these reports and future plans, and the Unit’s written accounts (often extending across more than 100 pages) were additionally appraised by up to ten anonymous reviewers.

            From a national perspective in 1968, MRC intended its new Social and Applied Psychology Unit to take forward the country’s very limited academic research into applied psychology.  The profession was tiny by today’s standards, and working to influence it nationally seemed an appropriate and feasible way forward.  With their MRC-prescribed national aim, Unit staff came to see four activities as particularly important:

  1. It was necessary to enhance the prestige of applied work in the eyes of established academic psychologists.  That meant a general concern for intellectual rigour, more presentations at high-status academic conferences, and the production of a low-priced but academically-respectable text-book.  Chapter authors in the resulting Penguin book (Psychology at Work, edited by Peter Warr with five successful editions between 1971 and 2002) were explicitly asked to illustrate applied thinking which was oriented to theoretical developments.
  2. The country required a more substantial workforce with research training and experience in applied psychology.  Organizational PhD research at Sheffield was quickly expanded as additional supervisors and projects became available through the new unit, and undergraduate and postgraduate teaching about applied themes was increased across the Psychology Department.  Particularly important was the initiation in September 1975 of a Master’s degree in occupational psychology – emphasizing to sceptical colleagues the subject’s academic respectability despite its applied nature.
  3. The United Kingdom lacked an academic journal in occupational psychology, and, linked to closure of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology and its house journal, Peter Warr proposed to the British Psychological Society that it should create an academically-oriented and explicitly international Journal of Occupational Psychology.  That was first published in 1975.  (In later years the journal’s scope became wider, and a subsequent proposal from SAPU was accepted to rename it from 1991 as the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.)
  4. Positive assessment of the new unit would come mainly through increased quality and quantity of research – in Sheffield and in UK more widely.  In those terms, it was necessary to work closely with business and other organizations, ideally through longitudinal or experimental research designs.  Also important was increased visibility for the Unit and the subject more widely, and conference and written publications were given high priority;  visits from internationally-eminent researchers were encouraged.  (A short book about SAPU’s research projects between 1968 and 1992 can be obtained without charge by emailing k.m.nielsen@sheffield.ac.uk.)

            The 1970s saw a widespread national concern for the ‘quality of working life’ and ‘industrial democracy’, at a time when workers were often suggested to be ‘alienated’ from society.  In those respects, SAPU research came increasingly to explore the nature of psychological wellbeing at work, the factors related to wellbeing, and ways to increase wellbeing.  These themes were formalized in 1973, when Harry Kay moved to become Vice-chancellor at Exeter University and Peter Warr’s research proposals for continuation of the Unit were accepted by the Medical Research Council.  Peter became the Unit’s full-time Director, and continued in that role for the following two decades with Toby Wall working as Assistant Director.

Staff numbers varied slightly across time, but successful annual bids from the Unit meant that by the 1990s it employed around 35 people.  Non-MRC funding was obtained for certain projects, and in October 1980 the Social Science Research Council bought into the organization, and its title was adjusted to become the ‘MRC/SSRC [later MRC/ESRC] Social and Applied Psychology Unit’.

In order to meet new scientific challenges, it was standard (and necessary) MRC policy to bring to an end some earlier support, and by the 1990s the Council’s priorities had shifted to focus exclusively on health and ill-health rather than non-medical forms of psychology.  Also, alternative funders had become available for psychological research, especially in applied areas.  On those bases, the Medical Research Council decided to close its Social and Applied Psychology Unit in 1996 – twenty-eight years after its foundation.  By then, almost all senior occupational psychologists in the United Kingdom had started their career in the Unit.

The creation of IWP

            How could it survive after withdrawal of long-term research council funding?  Discussions between staff of the Medical Research Council, the University of Sheffield and the Unit led to a decision that the University would finance its continuation on the expectation that additional income would be obtained.  Five senior members of SAPU became employees of the University from October 1994 within a new Institute of Work Psychology (IWP), which operated in parallel with the Social and Applied Psychology Unit for its first two years.  The new Institute continued as a free-standing organization, housed in the Department of Psychology but with links also to the School of Management.

However, the University’s structure was subsequently modified to require all research centres to be located in a single department, and around 2010 the Institute transferred entirely to the School of Management.  In that setting, IWP staff have combined externally-funded research with a wide range of teaching – including the MSc course in Occupational Psychology which its predecessor had initiated more than forty years previously.