Psychology at the United Nations: Our Contribution to Bettering the World

By Dr. Walter Reichman

I spend one day a week working at the United Nations, bringing psychology – and especially organizational psychology – to their operations and deliberations. I’m fortunate to work at OrgVitality, where we believe our mission includes helping not-for-profit organizations succeed. OrgVitality has not only been supportive of my work, but has co-sponsored the annual Psychology Day at the UN, bringing employees and clients to the event. OrgVitality supports the ultimate goals of the UN; namely, to bring peace and well-being to the people of the world. OrgVitality also recognizes that, as with all institutions, the UN has imperfections and it is the duty of all those who support it to work to improve it. One way of accomplishing this is to bring our professional expertise, programs, and research to the UN.

At the UN I work with like-minded psychologists who belong to psychological associations that have Special Accreditation to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. This accreditation permits us to submit documentation and to speak at meetings of commissions and councils about how psychology can be used to achieve the goals of the UN. Among these associations are the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP), American Psychological Association (APA), the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and the Society for Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI).

I believe psychology has an important role to play in the success of the United Nations. Psychology as the study of human behavior can provide important insight to the Ambassadors from the 193 member nations as they work to prevent wars and improve the lives of people around the world. In the years that I have been associated with psychology at the UN we have submitted documents to Commissions and Committees and spoken at sessions that led to the inclusion of decent work and mental health and well-being among the Sustainable Development Goals. We have spoken about the need for the living wage and providing employment for persons with disabilities, as they comprise a great percentage of those living in poverty. We have shared our insights on achieving gender equality, conflict resolution, and so much more.

As psychologists, we can also help ensure the well-being of those who work at the UN, a complex organization unrivaled by any company. In a 2017 well-being study it was discovered that there is a very high percentage of employees experiencing mental health issues such as depression, PTSD, abusive drinking and other psychological issues. Additionally, the longer a person was employed by the UN the greater the likelihood they would experience one of these disorders. Alongside colleagues from psychological associations with non-governmental organization (NGO) accreditation to the UN, I offered to help implement a five-year program. To this goal, we are starting with a webinar on mental health that will be presented to UN employees around the world. We have also put together an advisory committee of organizational psychologists to aid in bringing about the organizational changes necessary to help resolve these mental health issues.

Involvement with the UN has a special meaning to me. I am old enough to remember the end of the Second World War and its destruction. Having been born and raised in the safe environment of the Bronx, New York, I still recall the grief in my apartment building when a neighbor’s son was killed. I saw returning wounded veterans, newspaper pictures of bombed cities, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bomb, and the survivors of Nazi concentration camps. We sent packages of food, clothing, and medicines to surviving relatives in Europe. I was inspired by the military heroes of that war, Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, and the two great war leaders Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It was these two-great statesmen who conceived of the United Nations as an international organization that would prevent future wars. Eleanor Roosevelt headed the commission that produced the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. My father made me understand that the only way to prevent another war was the success of the United Nations, and he became an advocate of the UN. To a degree, I am fulfilling his legacy.

I am pleased that the UN has reached out to organizational psychologists to help them improve the organization. I am gratified that many of my colleagues have volunteered to lend their expertise to these issues. If you are interested in becoming involved with the UN please let me know. Your participation will be welcomed.

Dr. Walter Reichman is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality, the president of the Psychology Coalition of the United Nations, and the main NGO representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from the International Association of Applied Psychology. He is also a Professor Emeritus from Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Walter is the editor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Help the Vulnerable: Serving the Underserved. Walter has an MBA from City College of the City University of New York and an MA and Ed.D from Teachers College of Columbia University.

This article is part four of a new series on the life of Dr. Walter Reichman.

Email Dr. Reichman directly for more information.