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What Is Occupational Psychiatry?

Occupational psychiatry helps workers with their mental health.
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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 10 August 2014
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As a medical specialty, general psychiatry is the study of human mental health and disorders of the mind. Occupational psychiatry is a sub-specialty of general psychiatry, which specifically addresses the relationship between human mental health and working for a living. How work environments, working relationships, and a person's feelings about their occupation affect an individual's mental health is the primary focus. The overriding goal of occupational psychiatry is to help individuals and organizations optimize daily functions in the workplace by understanding the importance work has in individual lives and society.

Mental health concerns most commonly addressed by occupational psychiatrists are problems brought on by either work-related stress or work-related injuries. Both stress and injury stemming from work-related events can cause depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions. While stress and injury are not the only focus of occupational psychiatry, these are the two most common areas of concern. When an employee becomes stressed due to workplace events, productivity drops, the employee's personal life suffers, and as a result, the organization is affected. Likewise, work injuries, including emotional damage, can create a host of problems, both personal and professional.

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Including occupational psychiatry in the overall care of workers, as well as organizational decision making, first began during the early part of the 20th century. Initially, the concept was designed to help organizations motivate workers and increase productivity. Companies hired psychiatrists specifically to help understand the mindset of the average worker in relation to job performance. Gradually, the practice evolved to include employee assistance programs, treatments for work-related mental health issues, and other employee-focused care, outside of company-sponsored initiatives.

In terms of focus, modern occupational psychiatry is part of a two-prong approach to workplace mental health, including both organizational psychiatry and occupational psychiatry. Organizational psychiatry focuses on the overall mental health of an organization, including workplace culture, morale, and similar factors. Alternatively, occupational psychiatry focuses on the individual's mental health as it relates to career choices, working environments, and professional relationships. To put it in simple terms, organizational psychiatry focuses on the whole organization, while occupational psychiatry focuses on the individual.

Although occupational psychiatry focuses on the individual and his relationship with work, organizations are typically in charge of providing or requiring such services. For example, an employer might require an employee to see an occupational psychiatrist to evaluate the individual's fitness for duty. Such evaluations are common in professions like law enforcement, military service, and emergency responders. Other organizations, such as government agencies, might require evaluations by an occupational psychiatrist to diagnose a work-related mental health disability or to evaluate an individual's cognitive abilities regarding work.

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