Working towards safety

Chantal Corish has worked as a psychologist in rural Australia for more than 15 years and is a partner in a Goondiwindi cotton farming enterprise.

By Fiona Gowers

Goondiwindi cotton grower and practising psychologist Chantal Corish is aiming to create safer working environments on cotton farms.

Ms Corish has recently received a scholarship to undertake a PhD with Central Queensland University (CQU) and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC).

Her PhD project is a vital part of ensuring resources and outcomes are evidence-based and lead to improved practical outcomes for the cotton industry workforce.

Ms Corish will explore the effect of psychological safety on team learning, performance and wellbeing among cotton farming employees to achieve optimal positive workforce culture and workplace sustainability.

“I have worked as a psychologist in rural Australia for more than 15 years and I am also a partner in a cotton farming enterprise,” she said.

“I am very keen to use my reasonably unique position to help further the knowledge and understanding of farm worker needs in the cotton industry and more broadly across Australian agriculture.”

Further research on the topic of psychological safety and learning in the workplace was a recommendation that came from the CRDC-funded Understanding and Planning for the Future Cotton Industry Workforce project.

Principal supervisor Nicole McDonald said there was growing interest in the utility of psychological safety in modern workplaces.

And, the belief that individuals could engage in interpersonal risk-taking at work without negative consequences such as ridicule or rejection

“This factor is associated with improved team learning and performance and wellbeing in the workplace,” she said.

Dr McDonald said much of the workforce development happened “on the job“ and when formal training occurred but this didn’t always translate to improved job performance on the farm.

“It is therefore vital that we explore ways to unlock the workforce potential to develop their skills as cotton industry businesses adapt and change into the future,” she said.

“Investigating psychological safety in the farm work context may be one way to do that.

“With this in mind, we were on the hunt for a candidate for whom this topic was of interest, who would be able to come in and take ownership of exploring this within the cotton industry.

“When Chantal applied for the PhD position, it was clear we’d found someone who had already been looking into workplace culture, wellbeing and positive psychology concepts within agricultural communities and was looking to answer her own questions on the topic too.”

The Australian cotton industry employs more than 12,000 people across 1500 farms – each property directly creating jobs for an average of nine people.

Ms Corish said despite a significant contribution to employment in Australia, the cotton industry had conducted limited research into best practice workplace culture and employee wellbeing – factors that significantly impact productivity and production in other researched industries.

“My research proposal seeks to better understand the factors that lead to a psychologically safe workplace,” she said

“And, how psychological safety, which is a factor significantly associated with workplace wellbeing, team learning and performance, can be utilised within cotton farm work environments to enhance the employment experience for cotton farm employees.

“Attraction and retention of staff is a major issue for agriculture generally and is very much an issue for cotton growers.

“I am motivated to find solutions for the industry through this PhD.”

The research, which will take three years to complete, is funded by the CRDC and CQUniversity’s Elevate Scholarship.