Academic job share focused on boosting mental health at work spoke to Dr Jo Yarker about her work on occupational psychology and how she and her job share partner share their academic and commercial roles.

Dr Jo Yarker headshot


Dr Jo Yarker was one of the speakers at the recent Mad World Summit in London. The summit describes itself as “Europe’s only solutions-focused conference and exhibition with a clear mission: to eradicate stigma and spark a new era of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace”. Dr Yarker does a job share across her two roles – both as an academic and as a health consultant. spoke to her about that and the work she does on mental health at work.

When did you start your job share?

Dr Jo Yarker: Rachel Lewis and I have worked together for over 16 years – to start with we had an ‘unofficial’ job share, we covered each other’s maternity leaves and when Rachel returned from her second maternity leave while at Kingston University we requested a formal job share. To begin with our job share enabled us to balance our research, lecturing and young families. Now that our children are a little older, we both work full time but job share across two roles: at Birkbeck, University of London and as Managing Partners at Affinity Health at Work. This has given us the flexibility to develop a thriving university programme, and grow our consultancy practice.

How difficult and unusual is it to job share a research role?

JY: It is unusual – job shares are still typically reserved for administrative roles and at the time of our appointment we were the only academic job share in the University of London. We have been so lucky – we love working together, we have shared vision and aspirations for our research and practice, and we recognise our different strengths but encourage each other to continually strive and learn. We often reflect on how fortunate we have been – not everyone finds someone that they can so readily work well with.

What is important to ensure it works?

JY: Friendship, trust, respect – and talking. I trust Rachel’s decisions and admire her work. We share ideas, we turn to each other for advice and we check in regularly. We are working towards the same goals and while we might occasionally do things differently, we both recognise that there is no one right way. On a practical level we have a shared email, so that we can both be across day-to-day student, research and business needs; rather than splitting the job, we share all aspects of the job and this means we can flex workload and home demands in a responsive way.

You have developed a doctorate programme in Occupational Psychology. How important is this for pushing the field forward?

JY: Occupational Psychology is a fascinating field and ever more important given the complex challenges of today’s workplace. How people think, feel and behave at work impacts bottom line performance. Occupational psychologists apply evidence-based solutions to help organisations recruit, train and develop individuals, teams and their leaders so that they can perform and stay well at work. It takes about eight years to train to be a Registered and Chartered Occupational Psychologist – and during this time trainees are required to work across all areas of the employee lifecycle and develop skills that support individuals, team development and culture change, such as using psychometrics, facilitation and change management. Having such a broad and deep skillset means that occupational psychologists are well placed to help organisations with complex needs – from designing jobs and training leaders to implementing policies and practices that drive inclusion.

You are involved in a lot of interesting projects on mental health in the workplace, including one on how office space impacts our health. What does this involve?

JY: We have been fortunate to work with organisations of all sizes and sectors to protect and promote mental health. For all workers, physical factors (such as our office lighting and layout) and psychosocial factors (the psychological and social factors such as our relationships, job demands and the control we have over the way we work) impact the way we work.  Our recent study examined an office relocation – from a dated office block to a new purpose built workplace with internal staircases, sit stand desks and communal and private workspaces to facilitate movement and social connection. We  used surveys, interviews and active pals – small devices that some employees wore on their thighs for a week to track movement – as well as assessing the physical workspace.  We did this before the office move, and after, to examine the benefits to health, wellbeing and performance and to highlight areas where gains from the design, or aspects of the space, were not being fully realised.

You are working on a return to work toolkit. There has been a lot of focus on women returning after a career break for caring reasons. Do you think that much of what has been learned from that can be applied to other areas, such as career breaks for health reasons?

JY: We are passionate about enabling everyone to work to their capacity, to return to, to stay in and thrive at work. No matter the reason, too many people experience unnecessary difficulties returning to and staying at work – and we can learn from the different experiences that people have whether they are returning following a career break or sickness absence. For example, Keeping In Touch days would be helpful for some workers who are on long-term sick leave to help them stay in touch with the team, while a phased return may be beneficial to a returning parent who wants to build up time away from their child or their work confidence gradually. Our return to work toolkit draws on our IGLOO research which we conducted with Sheffield University. This highlights the responsibilities and the resources for the Individual, the Group (colleagues and team members), Line managers and the Organisation. It also recognises the Outside resource (such as healthcare provision). This framework could readily be applied to support people returning from career breaks – working through the different resources that people need to return to work successfully. For both returning parents, and those returning following sickness absence, we know that the way line managers behave is vital – training line managers in the key knowledge, skills and behaviours that support successful returns would benefit everyone.

Finally, what does your work with the construction firm Lendlease involve?

JY: Flexible working is often thought to be a privilege of those in office roles. We worked with Lendlease to implement flexible working practices across two large construction sites. We gathered information at the beginning, and after six months, and saw that staff in a broad range of roles were able to enjoy the benefits of flexible work – taking the opportunity to take children to school, go to the gym, compress hours to do a long commute on a Friday afternoon – the impact on staff health and wellbeing was promising, and importantly, site safety was not compromised. We learnt a lot about the resources that are needed – again using our IGLOO framework – to understand the individual, group, line manager and organisational practices that are needed to make flexible working work.

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