Worker well-being was not improved by emotional support from those closest to them unless the workers felt they usually gave as much support as they got, according to a study. Managers may need to create opportunities for people to give more help to colleagues to create a sense of positive imbalance.
There are two competing theories on how the give-and-take of emotional support impacts well-being, according to the study article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. One says that receiving more social support than we give makes us feel like we are being unfair, while giving more than we receive makes us feel unfairly treated. Balance, then, is most important in this view. The other theory is that someone who gives more feels like they are important—called the "mattering principle"—which enhances their well-being. Needing a lot of help makes someone feel inferior and harms well-being. Prior studies provided positive but mixed support for both. Researchers decided to combine the two by looking at the effect of support received within the context of that sense of balance. They were also curious about the impact of the overall levels of support given and received, since people need to conserve their emotional resources to have enough to get through life's problems.
Because previous research has shown older people perceive bigger differences in support balance than younger ones do, the scientists focused on older workers to get a wider range of answers. They conducted long phone interviews with 1,070 randomly selected blue-collar workers age 40 or older. All were U.S. union members in transportation, manufacturing, or construction. (Editor's note: Union membership lists were probably used because they were an easy source for a large list of people similar in some ways, along with age and contact information.) In the first interview, subjects were asked about how much emotional support they received from up to three adults close to them, not necessarily co-workers. Emotional support was defined as "the extent to which each one... listens, shows understanding and caring, and provides advice when needed." Subjects were also asked how much of the same they provided to the other person, on a four-point scale from "not at all" to "a great deal."
In that call and a second call a year later, the workers were asked to rate their mental and physical symptoms of depression during the prior month, from a list read to them. A sample mental symptom was, "'I felt that everything I did was an effort.'" Examples of physical symptoms included "shortness of breath" and "loss of appetite." In their analysis, the scientists accounted for factors like gender that could skew the results. Women are more likely to report depression symptoms than men.
When viewed one at a time, support given, support received, and the balance in the workers' relationships had zero or weak effects on these mental and physical symptoms. However, the data showed some intriguing patterns when support and balance were combined. When people felt they gave:
The authors suggest that managers need to bear in mind the possible negative effects of getting more support than received. Managers could provide more opportunities for people to give support and thus keep things in balance: "For instance, implementing employee support programs such as peer-based assistance programs..."
(For more suggestions within a team setting, see the related Teams Blog post).
Source: Nahum-Shani, I., P. Bamberger, and S. Bacharach (2011), "Social Support and Employee Well-Being: The Conditioning Effect of Perceived Patterns of Supportive Exchange," Journal of Health and Social Behavior 52(1):123.