A Small Office for a Huge Network

The European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA) provides a network for more than 300,000 psychologists. From her office in Brussels, EFPA director Sabine Steyaert establishes links between countries and defends the interests of psychologists at European level.  

Aurélie Faesch-Despont

Brussels, home to numerous European institutions, is considered the political capital of Europe. It is in this central hub that the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA) decided to set up its offices some 20 years ago. Situated midway between Brussels’ Grand-Place and Central Station in an area enjoying UNESCO World Heritage protection, the EFPA’s head office can be reached by climbing four flights of stairs of a characteristic Brussels house. Interview with the custodian of the premises, Sabine Steyaert, director of the EFPA since 1998.  

You’ve been working for almost 20 years among psychologists on a daily basis. What fascinates you most about psychology?

I’m not a psychologist myself. And it’s not necessary to be one in order to do my job. But to do similar work for another group of professionals wouldn’t be the same. Over the years, I’ve realised just how important psychology is. Everyone is likely to come across a psychologist at some point in their lives: a school psychologist for a child with difficulties at school, a career counsellor during a change of job, or a traffic psychologist in the event of withdrawal of your driving licence. When doing the shopping, we often forget that there is also usually a psychologist behind the choice of background music in the store or the design of the product packaging. 

What is the EFPA?

The EFPA is a network connecting more than 300,000 psychologists. Our members are psychologists’ associations from 36 different countries. The EFPA’s rôle is to promote psychology as an academic discipline, science and profession in Europe. It aims to promote the development, proliferation and application of psychology in all its forms. This objective comes to fruition through a very large palette of activities such as the collection and exchange of information, the development of standards and common practices, representation and lobbying at European level, managing the Europsy certification process, participation in European projects, providing experts and setting up a bi-annual congress. 

Are the EFPA’s activities oriented more inwards or outwards?

For a long time we were focused on ourselves and the organisation of our own structures. But Robert Roe, the president of the EFPA from 2009 to 2015, wanted to change that. So we started communicating more with the outside world, focusing on the European institutions and organisations, and looking for partners. It’s important for psychologists to make their presence felt in the upper echelons. If they don’t make themselves visible, they’ll lose out to others. And to do so, they need to learn to leave their comfort zone and join forces. It’s not an easy thing for them to do. An occupational psychologist once told me that the first thing he learned during his studies was that everyone is an individual in their own right and must be treated as such. Psychologists therefore sometimes find it difficult to rally around a worthy cause. But we have little by little managed to make ourselves known as trustworthy partners at European level. Today the EFPA is the main point of contact when psychological expertise is required. 

Is the EFPA often invited to represent the opinion of the psychologists?

There’s lots happening here in Brussels, and it’s for that very reason that the EFPA decided to set up its offices in this city. We receive many invitations, and we could spend all our time in meetings. We unfortunately don’t have the resources to be everywhere at the same time. For every invitation, I assess whether our presence is necessary. Together with the executive committee, we then try to find a suitable person to assist the experts in our working groups and commissions. We naturally have to stick to the strategic priorities set out by the general assembly, but we also try to tackle all the issues relating to mental health and the most pressing topics such as the consequences of terrorism or the migratory crisis.  

Who works for the EFPA?

To carry out our various activities successfully, there are three of us (two full-time positions) in the Brussels office involved in huge coordination efforts. But we can also rely on almost 300 volunteers from the whole of Europe who are committed to the different bodies. Our executive committee comprises seven members who are all volunteers. The others are involved in 20 working groups called boards, standing committees (permanent) and task forces (limited to two years). It’s very enriching, but at the same time very challenging working with so many different nationalities. There are many stereotypes which often prove to be correct, although not always. Countries have different expectations and we have to adapt accordingly. There are also huge differences in the level of professionalisation of our member associations. To give an example, the Italian association represents 80,000 psychologists, while Liechtenstein’s has 40 members.  

What do you expect from your member countries?

We expect them to inform us about what they’re doing and which initiatives they’re taking. It all boils down to communication. You’ll be surprised to see how similar the problems are in the different countries. They need to bear in mind that what they do could be useful to others. There is so much we can learn from the successes and failures of others. The exchange of information is therefore vital. From our side, we also try to communicate more the results of the work carried out by the working groups. At this year’s European Congress of Psychology in Amsterdam in July, there are no fewer than 40 symposiums and round tables being organised by our committees in order to present the results of their work and reflection. u 

The interviewee: Born of a Belgian father and German mother, Sabine Steyaert considers herself above all as a European citizen. After having worked in human resources at the Chambre de Commerce Belgo-Luxembourgeoise-Allemande, she was involved in setting up the EFPA’s central office in Brussels where she has worked since 1998.  

First published in Psychoscope 3/2017, pp.26-27. www.psychologie.ch/psychoscope