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A Broader Vision of I-O Psychology: First SIOP Visionary Circle Grant Goes to Project Supporting Gig Workers

By Robin Gerrow

The number of self-employed workers in the United States has been growing and is expected to comprise as much as 40% of the workforce by the mid-2020s. Although many of us think of gig workers as shoppers or ride-share drivers, as many as 60% of them are skilled professionals.

The winners of the inaugural Visionary Grant are seeking to widen the vision of I-O psychology and make sure those workers have the resources needed to thrive.

Dr. Sue Ashford from the University of Michigan, Dr. Brianna Barker Caza of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and PhD candidate Brittany Lambert of the University of Colorado, Boulder, won the prestigious grant of $100,000 for a proposal to identify the particular challenges faced by gig workers and test evidence-based interventions to bolster resilience among those workers.

“We’ve spent decades on research with a particular worker in mind,” Ashford said, “a worker who travels to a particular place very day and works within an organization. But there is a growing body of people who just don’t work in that way and who may not fit into our theories. And we aren’t capturing their experiences. Those are people who work independently, outside of an organization and on their own.”

Their proposal, “Working off the Grid: Building Resilience in the Gig Economy,” plans to take a new look at a subject that has interested Ashford for many years.

“When I was a junior faculty member at Dartmouth College I was stressed, uncertain about what I was doing, having lots of emotions, and feeling precarious,” she said. “My next-door neighbor at the time was a ceramist. At one point it occurred to me that if I was stressed, even with all of the support of an organization with an office and secretary, how does she cope? How does she get up on a dark Tuesday in January and go to her studio when there isn’t necessarily anyone waiting for her to do it?”

Over time other research interests took priority, but a number of years later she found herself thinking about the subject again.

“I had just finished four years of working in the dean’s office,” Ashford said. “That was a job where every minute of my day was blocked off in 30-minute increments. Then, one day that was just gone—I went from totally structured to totally unstructured. The only thing on my calendar was a meeting a month away. It just brought me back to thinking about, how do you figure out a work life when it is all up to you? When I came back to the idea, the world had caught up. All of the sudden there is this thing called the gig economy and everyone is talking about it.”

The Members of the Visionary Circle are donors who want to improve the world of work dramatically by supporting significant I-O psychology research and practice through projects that will have a lasting impact in the workplace.

SIOP Foundation President Milt Hakel said the establishment of the grant was modeled after community foundations that provide funds to nonprofits, with 81 SIOP members contributing more than $100,000.

“The response from donors has been superb,” he said. “In talking to people about establishing the grant, we heard that it needed to be something different from ‘business as usual,’ and we wanted to do something that would have a longer timeframe. We were looking for project ideas that will shape the future of work.”

The winning team is thrilled to receive the Visionary Circle Grant and was impressed with the competition.

“I was surprised,” Ashford recalled, “And we are all incredibly honored, especially as the inaugural winners—the other presentations were amazing projects. The whole idea of supporting what can be groundbreaking research is so wonderfully proactive. We are very grateful for the people who had the idea for the award and for all those who have contributed to the grant.”

The researchers are starting with in-depth interviews with workers doing comparable jobs within organizations and as independent workers to determine the special challenges facing gig workers and how they cope with them. The next phase of research will monitor those independent workers closely and test out intervention strategies to determine whether they are effective with this type of worker. As a result, the team expects to have a set of practical applications to help gig workers to be successful with a greater sense of wellbeing. 

“Why was our proposal visionary?” she asked. “We portrayed the project in terms of needing to expand SIOP’s vision to consider multiple type of workers. Sometimes we get caught up in understanding how organizations can best use their human resources and forget that we also have a responsibility to help people have fulfilling, productive, and sustainable work lives, whether they are working inside a company or outside on their own.  There’s value in studying that, whether it makes a company better at using its human resources or not. There’s value in studying what contributes to people’s well-being—enough income to sustain themselves, and some psychological well-being to keep going in their work lives. This project puts that question at the fore. There is no organization, we are just studying what these people need to have a good work life.”

Learn more about the SIOP Foundation Visionary Circle.

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