Social Support at Work

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Marlen Rahnfeld, DGUV

Social Support at Work

Humans are social beings, and for many people it is true that they spend more time at work with their co-workers than with their spouse or family. A growing body of research has observed that social support is an important factor affecting health and well-being. These findings have encouraged researchers, as well as practitioners, to investigate the mechanisms underpinning social support in the workplace and its respective links to worker’s health and well-being further; and additionally to investigate how social support can be integrated into workplace policies, practices, and interventions. The current article aims to provide an overview of the theoretical background and evidence base examining the link between social support and health, and will present practical information on how to enhance social support at the workplace.

Definitions and key concepts

Definitions

Social support is widely-known and well-studied; yet it remains a complex construct in psychological research and practice. There exist several definitions of social support in the literature. Consequently, it is hard to name just one or two. However, the following key elements are common in most definitions: social support ‘..may be regarded as resources provided by others, as coping assistance, as an exchange of resources, or even as a personality trait’ [1]. Unlike social network or social integration, which describes the structural and quantitative aspects of a person’s social relationships; social support, in contrast, characterises the functional and qualitative aspects of relationships [2] [3]. Researchers agree that giving and receiving social support is an interactive process and must be regarded under the concept of reciprocity, which refers to giving support which is positively associated with receiving it [4] [5].

Social support is a widespread, everyday phenomenon. Generally the majority of people report being socially supported in their private lives, but also at the workplace. In the 5th European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) in 2010 found 73% reported feeling supported by their colleagues and 63% by their managers [6]. However, it is important to note this data is only representative of the European context. For example, the First Korean Working Conditions Survey in 2005 found that only 29% of South Korean employees report being supported by their colleagues, 23% by their supervisor [7].

Types of social support

Social support can be categorised by either the type of social support or by its source. The two following sections aim to discuss these categorisations further. In practice, it is often challenging to clearly distinguish these categories from each other.

Typically viewed types of social support include [8]:

  • instrumental or practical support (e. g., practical help, assistance, or financial support);
  • emotional support (e. g. comfort, sympathy, encouragement); and
  • informational support (e. g. providing information which may help the respondent in problem solving, giving someone advice).

However, a diverse set of opinions of the number of categories of social support and their defining characteristics currently exist. For example, some researchers only divide social support into two categories: instrumental and practical support, on the hand; and see emotional and informational support as one category, on the other hand. Whereas, other authors have postulated that there exist other types of social support beyond the three aforementioned: including, for example, ‘companionship support’ and ‘validation’ [9]. Companionship support, also called ‘diffuse support’ or ‘belongingness’, describes a sense of social belonging that is elicited by shared social activities with others that help to distract the person from their problems or results in a positive mood [10]. ‘Validation’, also known as ‘feedback’ or ‘social comparison’, refers to obtaining information from others about the appropriateness of one’s feelings or behaviour.

Another common differentiation made in the literature is between ‘received’ and ‘perceived’ social support [5]. Received support is the actual support received in a situation where a person needs help from others. Perceived support, in contrast, is the anticipated support in the future; meaning an individual’s expectation of receiving support when in need. Schwarzer and Leppin refer to perceived support as ‘important under normal, everyday circumstances’ (p. 102) [5]. In the literature, received support is considered as retrospective in nature, whilst perceived social support is thought of as being prospective [1]. Thus, an important difference between them lies in the time point.

One might conclude that received and perceived supports are closely related. However, studies have found that this is often not the case [11]. One explanation is that received support is also influenced by environmental factors, whereas perceived support is to a greater extent determined by certain personality traits: for example, attachment style (which refers to the way we behave in relationships) [12]. Schulz and Schwarzer also found that a person’s level of perceived support seems to be closely associated with the level of support received a few months ago [13]. In research studies typically perceived social support is measured, due to the widespread use of self-report questionnaires. Given the sometimes enormous difference between both types, it is important to keep in mind this may lead to biased results.

Sources of social support

Another way of classifying social support is by source. In the working context, typical sources of social support are co-workers, supervisors, and the organisation in general. In the literature, these sources of social support are often termed as ‘perceived co-worker support’, ‘perceived supervisor support’ and ‘perceived organisational support”.

Support from non-work sources can, to a certain extent, have an impact on health and work outcomes as well [14]. Here support is usually provided informally by spouse or life partner, other family members, friends, neighbours, or formally by professionals outside the workplace (e. g. pastor, doctor, or therapist).

Background and theoretical models

A number of different theoretical models have been proposed to explain the role of social support (for example [15] [16] [17]. Although these models differ in content and structure, they can be broadly divided simply into two basic modes of action: the direct influence of social support, also known as the ‘main effect model’; and the indirect path of impact, also known as ‘the buffering hypothesis’ or ‘moderator effect model’ [18]. In the main effect model, social support has a direct positive influence on health and well-being. The buffering hypothesis states that social support reduces or buffers stress which means it decreases the detrimental effects of stress on health outcomes (see Figure 1) [3]. There is supporting evidence to a certain degree for both models, although the moderator effect model has yielded conflicting results. [19].

Figure 1: Direct and indirect effect of social support[3]

The ‘job-demand-control-model’ by Karasek is an important model in occupational health research [20]. It proposes that job strain is higher in jobs with high demands and low control. However, this model has been criticised for being too simplistic, therefore it was expanded to include a third dimension: social support. Following the addition of this third dimension, the model was renamed the ‘job-demand-control-support’ model (JDC-S) [21] [22]. The JDC-S theory states that social support can moderate the negative influence of high demands and low control on job strain.

Effects of social support on various outcomes

Research in regards to social support began in the early 1970s and soon became very popular among the scientific community. Many publications about social support at the workplace go back to the 1980s and 1990s, and interest in this topic area continues to grow. In relation to the workplace setting, outcomes of social support on stress and strain have been a major focus in research. Furthermore, research about social support has been widened to include other outcome variables; for example, health, job satisfaction, productivity, or turnover intention.

Health

The relationship between social support and health has been thoroughly examined over the last three decades and is well documented [23]. It has been demonstrated that lower levels of social support are associated with higher rates of many different diseases: for example, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. This sections aims to present the evidence base between the direct link between social support and worker’s health and well-being; and the mediated role of social support in the relationship between stress and ill-health.

Social support in the workplace is thought to be a very important resource in coping with stress by reducing stressors and strains [1] [19]. A longitudinal study found employees reporting high levels of peer support over a twenty year period had decreased mortality [24]; however, supervisor support was observed to have no impact. Some studies have observed a positive relationship between social support and well-being [25] [26]; whilst others have not observed similar findings [27]. Effects are reported in the other direction, too. Several studies imply a connection between the lack of social support and musculoskeletal ill-health [28]. Negative aspects of close relationships seem to worsen physical, mental, and social functioning [29].

Job satisfaction

A growing body of evidence indicates that there exists a positive relationship between social support and job satisfaction [30] [31]. In a meta-analysis, support from leaders and co-workers was observed to have a positive effect on workers’ reported job satisfaction [15]. However, in other studies mixed results have been reported: namely, effects of social support on job satisfaction seem to depend strongly on source and type. In most studies, only support provided by the workers’ supervisor was observed to influence job satisfaction and perceived success; whereas, support provided by colleagues had no impact [27] or to a much lower extent [32] [33]. In other studies, formal support by the organisation (e.g., flexible work arrangements, career development programs) played a less significant role than informal support by supervisors and colleagues [26] [34]. Furthermore, only instrumental support seemed to be associated with job satisfaction, but not emotional support [27].

Other organisational outcomes

Health and job satisfaction are clearly the best studied outcomes of social support in the working context. However, there are other variables that are related to social support, like productivity, organisational commitment, or turnover intention. A meta-analysis, conducted by Chiaburu and Harrison [15], found a positive relationship between co-worker support and job performance, job involvement, and organisational commitment among several other outcomes. Studies conducted to examine the influence of social support on productivity found that employees show higher rates of productivity when reporting higher levels of social support at work, especially by their supervisors [14] [25]. Tansky and Cohen reported that perceived organisational support influenced managers’ commitment to their organisation, which in turn had a positive impact on employee development [35].

Several studies have observed a relationship between social support and turnover intention; more specifically, these studies showed that workers reporting higher levels of social support are less likely to quit or stay absent from work [17] [26]. However, the magnitude of this observed relationship is rather small, and was not found in all studies [30]. Again, it seems like the source of support is crucial, with supervisor support showing greater influence than support from co-workers or the organisation [17] [33] [34]. Firth and colleagues [16] observed an indirect relationship between job stressors (role ambiguity, role conflict, work-overload, and work-family conflict) and intention to quit, which was mediated by supervisor support.

Controversial findings in social support research

Despite the large and growing body of research, the aetiological pathways and mechanisms underpinning social support and its respective relationship with various outcomes continue to remain unclear; since, the results of several studies rarely point in the same direction, and often the obtained results yield mixed results. The diverging findings could be due to different underlying definitions, different types of social support, and/or use of inadequate measures. The ‘matching hypothesis’ proposes that the type of support given should match the type needed; otherwise it will not show the expected effects [18]. For example, a person needing emotional comfort will not feel better when just being given money. Another explanation for conflicting results could lie in gender or ethnic differences [13]. Women and men tend to use different sources of support. Men receive support mostly by their spouse, while women rely mainly on support by close persons like friends [36] [37].

Although social support is beneficial in relation to many outcomes, its effects are not always positive, but can even be detrimental to the receiver [38]. On the one hand, there is the kind of social support which is well-intentioned but can result in negative outcomes. This can be the case when the provider pressures the receiver to ‘do something’, or the receiver’s self esteem decreases as they are given the impression of ‘needing help’ and ‘not making it on their own’ [39] [40]. On the other hand, there is the construct of social undermining, which is not just a lack of social support. Instead, undermining behaviour aims at worsening or damaging another person on purpose. In the workplace, those intentional offenses are mostly aimed at destroying another’s favourable reputation, their ability to accomplish their work, and/or their ability to build and maintain positive relationships [41]. These behaviours imply that social undermining is the complete opposite of social support or constitutes the other end of a continuum between support and undermining. However, researchers argue that both positive and negative aspects come from personal relationships. Researchers have found that the negative impact of social undermining can be even greater than the positive effect of social support [42] [41]. Social undermining is related to the broader issue of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Workplace practices

Social support at work can have favourable outcomes both on employees (e.g., job satisfaction, increased well-being) and the organisation (e.g., commitment, productivity, and decreased absence turnover behaviour). This section will have a closer look on how to transfer the findings from research into practice (i.e., how to use the beneficial effects of social support in the workplace). However, organisations interested in implementing and enhancing social support must know that this requires some sensitivity. Before starting any measures the organisation should examine if there is a request and need for it by their employees. The implementation of measures to cultivate/facilitate social support should never be perceived as forced, inappropriate, or unnecessary [40]. A positive (organisational) climate and personal relationships between co-workers, as well as supervisor and employees are needed to create the relevant platform for implementation. The following section will give some advice on what the individual, supervisors, and organisations can do.

Individuals

For the individual that wants to increase social support in the workplace, the first step is to create positive relationships to others. This can be done by adding one or more person to one’s own social network or by strengthening existing relationships. Social ties with others should be characterised by mutual appreciation, at least by the absent of antipathy. Further, the individual should be aware of the concept of reciprocity: more specifically, in order to receive social support, the individual should be willing to give social support to others. Another step is to articulate a need of help, which means seeking and asking for help, and appreciating support efforts from others.

Supervisors

Supervisors play a central role in giving social support at the workplace, with lots of beneficial effects on their employees’ health, job satisfaction, productivity, and turnover intention. Taking part in trainings focusing on social support can increase their awareness for the need for support in others, and hence providing support where needed and required. In accordance to the matching hypothesis, supervisors should learn to distinguish whether instrumental support is needed or emotional support is more appropriate. They should also be made aware of their status as a role model; which means that by giving their employees support, they, in turn, also encourage them to provide support to each other.

Organisations

The organisation’s duty to cultivate socially supportive environments requires establishing structures and practical solutions, which enable employees to effectively and collaboratively work together and facilitate social communication and interaction. There should be a special focus on groups, teams, and departments, where cooperation is enabled and rewarded. An important precondition lies in a so-called ‘culture of mutual appreciation’, where people are not afraid of asking for help and do not have to fear negative consequences. This also includes a transparent management of information and actively involving employees in central decision making processes. Good working conditions, fairness, and rewards also characterise perceived organisational support [43]. According to Sundin and colleagues, the amount of social support at the workplace is not determined by age, gender, personality traits, or educational level of employees, but mostly by organisational factors: such as, job control and job content [44]

Another important approach lies in the ‘professional support of supporters’ with the use of trainings, consultation, and supervision for supervisors (recognising the need for support and giving it); but also for employees (asking for support, saying thanks). In almost every organisation one will find so-called ‘key persons’ [45]. These people often hold central duties in a department. They help, listen, and give advice informally, but are not always appropriately noted or appreciated. This important target group should receive special attention, training, and supervision; as well as, receive rewards and appreciation.

Conclusions

There is wide spread agreement that social support is a crucial resource in the working context with positive effects on health, well-being, and job satisfaction, which employees and organisations can benefit from. Both supervisors and co-workers play important roles in providing support at the workplace, with supervisors presumably having some greater impact. However, these promising and positive findings should be viewed with caution for three reasons. First, results from research studies remain ambiguous. This may be due to different underlying definitions, measures, sources, and types of social support which led to inconsistent results. Second, the mere presence of others does not automatically mean receiving social support, since good and bad can come from relationships. Concerning the concept of social undermining, they can even do more harm than good. Third, despite the vast amount of studies and advice given on social support at work there are no more than a handful of evaluation studies examining the effectiveness of social support intervention programs, which showed rather mixed results [46]. Organisations cannot and should not force their employees to support each other; but rather they can lay the foundations to facilitate this process: for example, by creating a supportive work atmosphere, establishing structures that enable social support, as well as educating and training supervisors about their central role in giving social support and suppressing social undermining.

Links to further readings

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Mental Health Promotion in the Healthcare sector', e fact 46, 2009. Available at: http://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/e-facts/efact46

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Mental Health promotion in the workplace – a good practice report’, European Communities, Luxembourg, 2011. Available at: http://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/reports/mental-health-promotion-workplace_TEWE11004ENN

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Workplace health promotion for employees’, 2010. Available at: http://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/factsheets/94/view.

Langford, S., ‘Social Support’, Avalaible at: http://www.chsbs.cmich.edu/leader_model/Development/media/Targeted%20Lessons/social_support.htm

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