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I-O Psychology and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): An Interview With Mahima Saxena

Jenna McChesney & Walter Reichman

Welcome to the first interview of our new series featuring SIOP members dedicated to advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)! For this issue, we were honored to speak with Mahima Saxena, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska and the recipient of the 2020 SIOP Humanitarian Award. Her research primarily centers on areas such as decent work, worker well-being, and employee health, with a particular focus on workers living in poverty, highly skilled individuals in the informal economy, and those facing occupational health challenges in their jobs.

During this year’s annual conference, Mahima actively participated in the symposium titled “Achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” where she shared her expertise in applying I-O psychology to achieve the sustainable development goals. In this interview, we continue the conversation by delving into her thought-provoking presentation at SIOP and her insights on how each of us can make a difference in the lives of workers worldwide.

When asked to summarize her presentation and how it related to the UN SDGs, Mahima explained, “I wasn’t focusing on any one SDG in particular. Instead, I aimed to amplify the growing cause for increasing I-O representation in sustainable development activities. I made a case that I-O has much to contribute to and gain from research and practice in this area. My presentation included examples and field notes from my own research, providing insights, best practices, and information about previous projects. I wanted to showcase how psychology can be effectively applied to sustainable development.”

Elaborating on the challenges she addressed in her presentation, Mahima shared, “I specifically focused on methodological and logistic barriers faced during nonorganizational research in rural and remote areas. Factors like language, climate, and cultural differences can pose challenges, and it may require an ethnographic or an alternate perspective to overcome what appear to be barriers initially.” She discussed a research project that applied I-O psychology research methods (e.g., experience sampling method) to public health via investigating the spread of an infectious disease, Japanese encephalitis, as an occupational health hazard for low-income agricultural workers. She discussed the data collection process in this research project that occurred during monsoon season in India, exposing the team to peak biting periods, linguistic challenges, and the necessity of collaborating with the right people to ensure both researcher and participant safety.

Mahima’s passion for integrating I-O practices with sustainable development goals shone through when she discussed her hope for the impact of her presentation. “My hope would be that I-O professionals become excited about this type of research and that my presentation inspires them to think about how their work can contribute to sustainable development globally,” she said. “While we do a lot of good for organizations and employees already, we can be more intentional about the prosocial goals of I-O, speaking to the greater good beyond organizational purposes. It’s a lofty goal, but with the potential we have to bring about positive changes, I believe it’s well worth pursuing.”

In response to the question of why psychologists and members of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) should be interested in the SDGs, she said, “If there’s any area of psychology that can significantly contribute to sustainable development and address the grand challenges we face today, it’s psychology! We, as I-O psychologists, already care about well-being, the meaning of work, and the impact of work on individuals. We can lead the way for SDG implementation because we’re already doing so much that aligns with the broader goals of sustainable development.”

Regarding concrete ways to get involved, Mahima emphasized the importance of explicit prosocial considerations in academic research. “Researchers can look at their work within the context of the SDGs and examine how their findings contribute to the greater good,” she suggested. “In academia, we can integrate discussions of the SDGs and humanitarian work into introductory textbooks and training programs. For practitioners, promoting a prosocial mindset within organizations and engaging in voluntary programs supporting sustainable initiatives can be effective steps.”

Finally, when discussing her upcoming projects related to SDGs, Mahima revealed her excitement, saying, “I’m currently working on projects focused on workers in the informal economy. One fascinating aspect is exploring the concept of ‘psychologically sustainable work’ in marginalized communities.” Her research found that even in abject poverty, workers experienced a sense of vigor and positive affect while working.  She is currently trying to understand how such intrinsically meaningful work can inform sustainable livelihoods and the future of work going forward.

Mahima’s presentation at this year’s conference offered an inspiring and enlightening perspective on the potential of I-O psychology to contribute meaningfully to the global pursuit of sustainable development. Her passion for creating positive change was evident throughout the interview, serving as a call to action for I-O professionals to embrace SDGs and work toward a more sustainable future.

Stay tuned for more interviews with other remarkable SIOP members in our upcoming issues

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