Workplace social support refers to the availability or actual receipt of assistance provided to an employee by one or more individuals. It is generally examined as a means of coping with occupational stress. An important distinction concerns the sources of social support. Support may be provided by individuals within the organization—for example, supervisors, subordinates, coworkers, or even customers—or by individuals outside the organization, such as family or friends. Research shows that social support provided by individuals within the organization, particularly support provided by supervisors, has the greatest implications for employee well-being.
Another important distinction delineates structural support and functional support. Structural support refers to the size of an individual’s social network, whereas functional support refers to whether the individuals in a person’s social network actually provide helpful behaviors. Empirical evidence suggests that structural support and functional support are relatively independent. Thus, having a large social network does not guarantee that one will actually receive support in times of trouble. Furthermore, individuals may receive adequate support even if they have relatively small social networks. This might happen, for example, when a person receives high levels of support from one or two individuals.
Functional support can be further divided into instrumental support (i.e., tangible support) and emotional support. Instrumental social support involves the receipt of concrete assistance from others. An office employee who helps an overworked coworker clean her office, for example, is providing instrumental social support. Emotional social support, on the other hand, involves showing sympathy and concern for others. Whereas instrumental support usually involves doing, emotional support often involves listening and talking. An employee who listens and gives encouragement to a coworker who is in danger of being fired, for example, is providing emotional social support.
Although instrumental and emotional social support are related to each other, empirical evidence supports the distinction between them. Furthermore, the two forms of support may have different effects. Some research suggests that emotional support is more strongly related to employee well-being than instrumental support.
Research further distinguishes between different forms of emotional social support. Terry A. Beehr and his colleagues, for example, identified three types of conversations that people might have at work, each representing a different form of emotional support:
- Conversations about positive aspects of the workplace (e.g., talking about how one’s supervisor is a great leader)
- Conversations about negative aspects of the workplace (e.g., talking about how poorly one is paid)
- Conversations about non-work-related events and activities (e.g., talking about how one spent last weekend)
Of these three forms of emotional social support, conversations about the negative aspects of work are most unlike other kinds of support. Indeed, even though people commiserating with each other and agreeing that the situation is bad is a logical form of support, research suggests that this type of support does not have the favorable effects associated with other forms of support.
Distinction between Social Support and Similar Constructs
Social support has some resemblance to other variables that are of interest to industrial and organizational psychologists. Organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs), employee friendship, and leader consideration all have some conceptual overlap with social support. For example, OCBs represent pro-social workplace behaviors that involve going above and beyond the responsibilities of one’s official job description to help the organization or its members.
Talking favorably about one’s employer to organizational outsiders or helping a coworker who has a heavy workload are both examples of OCBs. The first example is an OCB that is directed at assisting the organization, whereas the second example is an OCB that is directed at assisting an individual employee. Because it involves providing assistance to a particular individual, the latter is similar to social support. Important distinctions, however, exist between social support and OCBs. On one hand, OCBs are generally studied from the perspective of the individual performing the behavior. For example, a focal person is asked to report how often he or she personally performs OCBs, or the focal person’s supervisor is asked to report the frequency of such behavior. On the other hand, social support research also measures the extent to which the target individual is a recipient of helpful behaviors from others. Thus, much more is known about recipients’ perceptions of social support given than is known about the givers of social support. Another important difference between social support and OCBs is that OCBs are typically regarded as a form of job performance, whereas social support is not considered an aspect of job performance.
Friendship among coworkers, which has attracted some attention from industrial and organizational psychologists, has some conceptual similarity to social support. Whereas friendship implies a helpful relationship between two or more people at work that develops over time, social support can represent a onetime helpful behavior performed by a stranger. It is likely that almost all friends provide social support, but not all individuals who provide social support are necessarily friends. A customer who helps a waiter clean up a spilled drink, for example, is providing instrumental social support but probably not friendship.
Leader consideration is another variable that is conceptually similar to social support. Consideration is the extent to which a leader displays concern for subordinates’ well-being and shows appreciation for their efforts. Whereas social support can be provided by anyone within or outside the organization, leader consideration is necessarily a quality of the behavior performed by a supervisor. Thus, some of the behaviors described as consideration are unique to individuals in leadership positions and are not likely to be performed by nonleaders.
Antecedents of Social Support
Because social support can prove useful as a treatment for occupational stress, it is important to understand the factors that contribute to the amount of social support one receives. Once the factors contributing to social support are understood, organizations will be in a better position to develop interventions to increase support among organizational members. Despite the attention social support has received in the literature, researchers have only recently examined the antecedents of social support. For example, research suggests that reciprocity plays an important role in determining the amount of social support one receives. Specifically, employees are likely to receive the most social support when they give social support to others.
Consequences of Social Support
Much more attention has been paid to the effects of social support than to its causes. This research has primarily examined the effects of social support on stressors and strains, as well as the moderating effects of social support on the stressor-strain relationship. Workplace stressors are aspects of the work environment that require an adaptive response on the part of the employee and have the potential to cause ill health. Examples of workplace stressors include having a heavy workload, being exposed to abusive customers, and having to work on tasks that are highly repetitive. Strains, on the other hand, are the negative health consequences produced by stressors, such as depression, anxiety, and physical illness.
Social support is related to both stressors and strains. For example, one recent meta-analysis found that social support is negatively associated with several forms of workplace stressors, such as role ambiguity (having unclear work responsibilities), role conflict (having multiple work responsibilities that interfere with each other), and underutilization of skills. The same meta-analysis found that social support is negatively associated with a number of strains, such as poor mental and physical health, life dissatisfaction, and burnout. In sum, those who report high levels of social support generally report relatively fewer workplace stressors and better mental and physical health.
Much of the attention given to social support has focused on the buffering effect (i.e., moderating effect) of social support. Indeed, many researchers agree that the buffering effect is the most important hypothesis about social support. The buffering effect occurs when the relationship between stressors and strains is weaker for individuals who receive high levels of social support than for individuals who receive little or no social support. The following are two examples of the buffering effect:
- The amount of workload one has is strongly associated with anxiety for individuals who receive little social support, but it is only weakly related to anxiety for individuals who receive a great deal of social support.
- Being abused by a supervisor produces serious physical health symptoms for individuals who are low in social support, whereas abuse by a supervisor produces little or no physical health symptoms for individuals who are high in social support.
However, most studies have failed to support the buffering effect. If fact, evidence for the buffering effect is so inconsistent that many current researchers prefer to conduct exploratory analyses regarding the moderating effects of social support rather than actually hypothesize the buffering effect. Perhaps the most common finding is that social support has no effect on the relationship between stressors and strains. In other words, the magnitude of the relationship between stressors and strains is similar regardless of the amount of social support one receives.
Some studies have even found evidence of a reverse buffering effect, which occurs when the stressor-strain relationship is stronger rather than weaker for individuals who receive high levels of social support compared to individuals who receive little social support. The reverse buffering effect is counterintuitive, and little evidence exists to explain when and why it might occur. One possibility is that some forms of social support (e.g., conversations about the positive aspects of work) may produce the buffering effect, whereas other forms of support (e.g., conversations about negative aspects of work) may produce the reverse buffering effect. Another possibility is that social support produces a buffering effect only when the social support and the stressor come from different sources. Support from coworkers but not from supervisors, for example, may buffer the relationships between workload (a stressor presumably caused by the supervisor) and strains.
On the other hand, a reverse buffering effect may occur when social support and stressors come from the same source. This may occur because it is distressful to interact with the source of stressors even when that source is providing support. Another possibility is that under some conditions, people feel uneasy when they must consistently depend on the support of others, and this uneasiness may exacerbate the negative effects of stressors.
So far, support provided by particular individuals, such as supervisors or coworkers, has been discussed. In addition to the supportive behavior of individuals, employees generally develop perceptions about whether their employing organization is supportive or unsupportive. Organizational support represents the extent to which employees perceive that their employing organization cares about their personal welfare, values their contributions, and is committed to them. Unlike social support, organizational support represents a global perception of one’s organization rather than a perception of particular individuals.
Antecedents of Organizational Support
Social support provided by one’s supervisor is one possible antecedent of organizational support. Immediate supervisors are the organizational representatives whom employees have the most direct exposure to; thus, employees are likely to infer organizational support based on the support provided by their supervisor. The favorability of one’s working conditions is also likely to contribute to employee perceptions of organizational support. Both intrinsic job conditions (e.g., having work tasks that are stimulating) and extrinsic job conditions (e.g., availability of promotions) likely affect perceived organizational support, as do workplace stressors (e.g., role ambiguity and conflict).
Consequences of Organizational Support
Research suggests that when employees perceive that their organization supports them, they will reciprocate by showing support for the organization. When employees perceive that their organization is supportive, for example, they will generally feel indebted to the organization and manifest attitudes and behaviors that express their gratitude toward the organization.
Organizational support has been examined as a predictor of several employee attitudes and behaviors. Job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job involvement, attitude toward management, and turnover intention, for example, are all attitudes that may be influenced by organizational support. Behaviors related to organizational support include job performance and organizational citizenship behaviors. Like social support, organizational support has been examined as a predictor of employee strains. Organizational support, for example, is negatively associated with burnout, fatigue, job tension, and somatic symptoms.
- Beehr, T. A. (1995). Psychological stress in the workplace. London: Routledge.
- Bowling, N. A., Beehr, T. A., & Swader, W. M. (2005). Giving and receiving social support at work: The roles of personality and reciprocity. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67,476-489.
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- Eisenberger, R., Huntington, R., Hutchison, S., & Sowa, D.(1986). Perceived organizational support. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 500-507.
- Viswesvaran, C., Sanchez, J. I., & Fisher, J. (1999). The role of social support in the process of work stress: A meta-analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 54, 314-334.