Organisational psychology strengthens overseas development programs

Overseas aid work is emotionally and psychologically testing, so ensuring candidates are suited to the work not just in terms of experience but in psychological terms can make all the difference to a successful posting.

A unique psychosocial recruitment approach to nursing and pathology development programs in Timor-Leste has doubled retention rates from 50 to 100 per cent.

Mandala Foundation, a Melbourne-based psychosocial support organisation, improved candidate selection and fit while boosting the preparation, support and retention of health care workers for two-year positions with St John of God Health Care’s capacity building programs in the Southeast Asian nation.

In 2011, Mandala Foundation psychologists worked with St John of God Health Care to develop a recruitment assessment program tailored to the specific psychosocial context of Timor-Leste, in a bid to prepare health care workers for the daily demands and challenges of living and working in the complex setting.

Mandala Foundation Executive Director Kate Minto said the program, which guides and supports candidates as well as their families and the organisation, has achieved full retention for the long-term positions in the past four years.

“St John of God Health Care has retained all program recruits from 2012 onwards,” she said.

“It’s a benefit for the organisation - they’ve got continuity, retention and fit.

“It’s also a benefit for the individuals. It’s a long-term team with well established relationships, there’s project continuity, they have a strong support network in the team itself, so it positively impacts both the individual and the organisation ultimately.”

The extensive recruitment program features an individual psychological assessment to fit the role and context, a two-day group assessment with a range of simulation scenarios and activities, and psychosocial interviews for applicants and their partners.

Ms Minto said the approach takes the traditional psychological assessment of candidates a step further, contextualising it for the employment environment.

“You can look at someone’s individual psychological profile but that doesn’t tell you how they’ll fit to a particular context,” she said.

“The psychosocial approach is very much that dynamic interplay between the individual’s psychology and their needs, and how that plays in with the social context of work, including the team environment, the community, the culture. So, we’re very much measuring and looking at the intersection between those two factors.”

The Mandala Foundation’s recruitment program won the Australian Psychological Society’s (APS) inaugural Workplace Excellence Awards for Recruitment and Selection in 2015. The Awards celebrate exceptional achievement and innovation in organisational psychology.

Ms Minto said the accolade recognises the importance of organisations adopting a psychosocial approach, which can significantly improve recruitment and retention for high pressure and challenging work environments.

“Aid workers are deploying to Ebola responses, cyclones, the Nepal earthquake - it’s a complex, stressful sector and the psychological toll can be large if it’s not systematically managed and supported by organisations,” she said.

“This award has enabled us to raise awareness, not only within our sector but I think outside our sector, of the benefits of the psychosocial approach.

“We’ve also found applicability even within Australia for organisations, for example those working in the community sector or in emergency situations or even in Indigenous contexts,” she said.

“Really, it’s about anyone who is working in a complex, stressful environment that wants a mechanism to systematically evaluate what are the likely stressors, and to support their candidates to prepare for those through the recruitment process as well as the subsequent preparation process. It’s quite a comprehensive process and it’s done at a systematic level.”