Stress in the workplace exists when an individual perceives the demands of the job exceed what he/she is capable of accomplishing. Occupational stress has been found to be a direct result of role ambiguity, role conflict, role overload, responsibility for others, and a lack of social support from colleagues or supervisors.
Employees who experience high levels of stress often have low engagement, high turnover, low productivity, abuse drugs or alcohol, and more interpersonal conflicts. Personal costs of high stress can also include poor health, depression, low self-esteem, low life satisfaction, and high absenteeism.
Social support from supervisors has been proven to reduce stress at work. Studies have documented that those experiencing the lowest levels of stress at work typically experience higher levels of social support from their supervisor. If sustained over time, supervisor support is a positive factor that can protect an employee from work stress.
What is Social Support?
Social support is defined as feeling cared for, esteemed, valued, or belonging to a network based on mutual obligation. Having access to social support acts as a powerful moderator of stressful working conditions because it gives people the tools to cope with occupational stress.
Social support at work has been found to eliminate the detrimental effects of stress on health. Specifically, researchers found that under conditions of high social support, healthcare costs were nearly the same for those in the high stress group as those with low stress. When social support was low, healthcare costs were significantly higher for the high stress group than for the low stress group.
Individuals who have access to a supportive supervisor in the organization are more likely to request help when needed. This is a favorable coping mechanism under stressful conditions. A supportive supervisor can encourage employees to take specific actions to reduce work overload. A positive relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate also allows the employee to stay task oriented and focused on the resolution of problems as opposed to becoming preoccupied with feelings of uncertainty or anxiety.
In contrast, a lack of supervisor support can act as a work-related stressor. Role ambiguity will likely be high among employees if the supervisor does not provide sufficient feedback or guidance. Attitudes and behaviors that employees perceive as disrespectful (such as yelling or name calling), are also predictive of greater stress.
Training Supervisors to Provide Social Support
When a supervisor offers social support, employees may recover from job stress without needing to take a day off or quit their jobs. Unfortunately, most organizations do not train supervisors on the necessity of social support or how best to provide assistance.
There are 4 common types of social support:
- Emotional support is the offering of empathy, concern, trust, acceptance, encouragement, or caring. It is expressed as warmth and nurturing . Providing emotional support can let the individual know that he or she is valued.
- Tangible support is the provision of financial assistance, material goods, or services. Also called instrumental support, this form of social support encompasses the concrete, direct ways people assist others.
- Informational support is the provision of advice, guidance, suggestions, or useful information to someone. This type of information has the potential to help others problem-solve.
- Companionship support is the type of support that gives someone a sense of social belonging. This may include the presence of colleagues or coworkers who engage in shared social activities.
Given the beneficial effects of supervisor support that have been proven to reduce employee stress, it is essential that organizations begin to train their leaders to provide these 4 types of social support.