Science for Good: Humanitarian Work Psychology

dirty hands
June 2, 2018
Brian Hengesbaugh
Defining and Establishing Humanitarian Work Psychology

Humanitarian Work Psychology (HWP) is the application of the scientific principles of psychology to the context of work with the deliberate goal of enhancing individual human welfare (Clayton and Foster, 2013). HWP was first established in 2009 when a group of Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychologists met in London to discuss their common interest in using work to improve outcomes for underserved populations (Stringer, 2016). As a subdiscipline of I-O Psychology, HWP represents the intentional expansion of the scope of psychological sciences to include data-driven practices for improving living and working conditions for people across the globe (Clayton and Foster, 2013).

How is HWP Related to Other Work Psychology Domains?

Because work provides opportunities for individuals to interact directly with the social, political, and economic factors that shape their lives (Blustein, 2008), it holds unique power as a humanitarian tool. HWP therefore draws from a variety of established psychology domains that examine work.

(e.g., I-O, vocational, occupational health, positive psychology; Table 1)
Psychology Field Topics of Interest HWP Example
  • Motivating factors Worker and task selection
  • Training and performance management
  • Worker productivity and organizational effectiveness (Blustein, 2008)
Using results of personality profiles as criteria for bank loans for women who would otherwise be denied due to lack of formal financial documentation (Klinger, 2011)
  • Career and work-based decision making
  • Individual strengths Interaction with the environment (Blustein, 2008)
Investigation of the impact of marginalization and exclusion on immigrant workers seeking employment in a new job market (Maynard et al., 2010).
Occupational Health
  • Employee health
  • Safety
  • Well-being
  • Occupational stressors
  • Workers’ families’ outcomes (Ahmed, 2017)
Understanding the nature of stressors, coping mechanisms, and psychological wellbeing in humanitarian workers in Colombia (Vergara & Gardner, 2011)
  • Human strengths and virtues
  • Optimal functioning of individuals, groups, and organizations
  • Meaningful life (Gable & Haidt, 2005)
The role psychological capital plays in explaining the relationship between decent work and motivation at work. (Ferraro et al., 2017)

HWP is similar to these domains of psychology in that they are all evidence-based, interdisciplinary fields concerned with understanding the interplay of psychological, social, and organizational factors in improved outcomes for individuals and organizations (Ahmed, 2017). But unlike other domains, HWP primarily focuses on expanding access to decent work, especially for those living in poverty or in developing countries, in an effort to specifically achieve humanitarian outcomes (Clayton & Foster, 2013).

Understanding Decent Work

At the core of HWP is the notion of decent work (Carr & Thompson, 2013). Decent work supports the economic, psychological, and physical health of workers, families, and communities (Duffy et al., 2016). It provides fair income, secure work environments, opportunities for growth, freedom to express concerns, and the ability to contribute to decisions that affect workers’ quality of life (Duffy, Blustein, Diemer, & Autin, 2016). The primary outcome of securing decent work is the fulfillment of three individual needs: survival, social connection, and self-determination (Duffy et al., 2016). The attainment of these needs through decent work creates a foundation upon which people can experience job fulfillment and individual well-being (Duffy et al., 2016).

Marginalization, however, creates significant obstacles to accessing decent work (Duffy et al., 2016). For example, students in poverty and students of color report feeling less connected to academic institutions than their peers, which is a contributing factor to diminished work outcomes (Duffy et al., 2016). Further, workers with physical disabilities reported that their co-workers’ lack of knowledge regarding the severity of their disability created interpersonal barriers that were cited as being more challenging than structural barriers like climbing the stairs (Crooks, 2007).

When considering access to decent work, individual attributes such as proactive personality (i.e., propensity to take initiative) and critical conscience (i.e., ability to use moral awareness to challenge social constructs) are influential factors. In addition to the individual-level factors, HWP explores the role of sociocultural factors (e.g., language, education, attitudes, family structure, etc. ) in work related decisions and the work experience for all people, particularly those who are marginalized on the basis of race, social class, disability, and/or gender. To understand the psychological nature of work, we need to study these sociocultural factors, especially as they relate to the context in which marginalized people experience work (Duffy et al., 2016).

The Growth of HWP

HWP has grown in concert with the rising global emphasis on addressing the needs of underserved and marginalized populations, as outlined in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals released in 2000. Economic circumstances such as the Great Recession, in conjunction with the growing influence of technology, also played a role in the establishment of HWP (Duffy et al., 2016). These economic factors produced a diminished job market that disproportionately affected individuals lacking high level professional skills (Duffy et al., 2016). This led to heightened concentrations of income and wealth among the upper decile of the population and further reduced the socioeconomic power of the poor (Duffy et al., 2016), thus highlighting the need for systemic changes to lift underserved populations out of poverty.

In 2008, the ILO developed a framework of Decent Work Indicators used to measure the growth of decent work within an economy (International Labour Organisation, 2013). The measurement framework is built on four strategic pillars: full and productive employment, rights at work, social protection, and the promotion of social dialogue (International Labour Organisation, 2013). The ILO asserts that countries should use the measurement framework as a starting point for monitoring decent work, and that the statistical indicators of decent work are expected to change as research in this field continues (International Labour Organisation, 2013).


Overall, the nascent field of humanitarian work psychology reflects global and local workplace and social trends. By applying the psychological, social, and organizational concepts of existing work psychology domains to the Millennium Development Goals through the focus on access to decent work for all people, HWP can help researchers and practitioners better understand the social, economic, and individual factors associated with the working experience of impoverished and marginalized individuals.

Practical HWP Takeaways:

  1. Promote decent work - Employees, employers, and policy makers can seek to create work environments that meet the fundamental needs of survival, social connection, and self-determination.
  2. Measure decent work - Researchers and policy makers can adapt and utilize the International Labour Organization’s Decent Work Indicators to gather baseline data and measure the growth of decent work.
  3. Identify and address patterns of marginalization - Employees, employers, policy makers, and researchers can pursue an understanding of: the sociocultural factors that are specific to communities, how these factors may be leading to employment marginalization, and interventions that will reduce employment marginalization along sociocultural lines.
  4. >Contribute to HWP research - Make connections with universities, companies, labor organizations, and government offices to learn how to help develop the field of HWP and enhance human welfare through access to decent work.
Further Reading: 

Ahmed, S. (2017, October). Humanitarian Work Psychology and Occupational Health Psychology: Two sides of the same coin? Global Organisation for Humanitarian Work Psychology Newsletter. Retrieved from

Blustein, D. L. (2008). The Role of Work in Psychological Health and Wellbeing: A Conceptual, Historical, and Public Policy Perspective. American Psychologist, 63 (4), 228-240

Carr, S. C. & Thompson, L. (2013). Humanitarian Work Psychology: Concepts to Contributions. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Inc. (2013), 24

Clayton, A. & Foster, L. (2013). Psychology In Action: Humanitarian work psychology at North Carolina State University’s IOTech4D Lab. Psychology International, 24 (2), 6-9

Duffy, R. D., Blustein, D. L., Diemer, M. A., & Autin, K. L. (2016). The Psychology of Working Theory. The Journal of Counseling Psychology 63 (2), 127-148

Gable, S. & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and Why) is Positive Psychology? Review of General Psychology 9 (2), 103-110

International Labour Organisation (2013). Decent Work Indicators: Guidelines for producers and users of statistical and legal framework indicators. ILO Manual, second version. Retrieved from

International Labour Organisation (2018). Decent Work. Retrieved from

United Nations (2015). We Can End Poverty: Millennium Goals and Beyond 2015. Retrieved from

Stringer, H. (2016). Humanitarian Work Psychology: This new psychology field focuses on underserved populations. Monitor On Psychology, 47(4), 61.

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