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The demand to improve productivity has created a workplace environment of intense competition and increased stress for many. Paradoxically, these conditions often stymie organizational efforts to become more efficient and effective.
A new study offers a novel way to improve worker productivity — training direct supervisors to provide emotional and social support. While it may seem a common-sense notion, many employers do not train supervisors on the necessity of support or on techniques to provide assistance.
As an example, a worker might develop somatic symptoms, such as stomach aches, a headache or muscle tension from workplace stress. The symptoms may cause the individual to call in sick or even take a leave of absence.
However, when the individual’s supervisor offers emotional and social support, the employee may recover without needing to take that extra afternoon or day off.
This is the finding of a new study from the University of Haifa, soon to be published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.
In earlier studies, scholars have shown stress at the workplace (due to high job demands and low control) can cause workers to develop psychological strain that translates into physiological symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches and fatigue.
The symptoms and ill effects are often relieved when individuals take time away from work to recover. Experts report that approximately $225.8 billion per year is lost in the U.S. alone due to absenteeism.
The study, lead by Dr. Michal Biron of the University of Haifa, examined interpersonal workplace dynamics and their influence on burnout. Biron also investigated if the workplace environment influenced the individual’s decision to take sick leave to recover.
The study was conducted in a manufacturing enterprise in China and examined a sample group of 241 workers.
In Chinese culture, there is significant distance between supervisor and employee, making it a particularly relevant context to examine the role of supervisor support relating to absenteeism.
The workers were asked to report on common somatic symptoms, such as headaches or muscle soreness, that they experienced over the past month and to indicate how often their supervisor provided them with emotional and instrumental support once they experienced physical symptoms of stress.
Data on sickness absence was provided by the employer.
The results showed that support from a supervisor when an employee is experiencing psychosomatic symptoms of the stress can make a real difference.
When the boss offers support in the form of, for example, a lightened work load or stress management training, it is more likely to keep the worker from taking sick leave. This is because the worker feels more inclined to reciprocate the supportive treatment by keeping their work effort high.
“The worker who is given this sort of support is more likely to overcome the somatic stress and continue to work productively, leaving recovery for the normal after-work hours when we recharge our batteries,” said Biron.
However, investigators realized that a worker might stay at work out of fear for their position. But the study suggests such a worker is also less likely to be able to shake off the symptoms and will in due course need more sickness absence.
Researchers determined that co-worker support early on, when the employee begins to experience workday stress, plays a role in reducing the physical effects of stress, thereby reducing the likelihood of even developing the need for sickness absence.
“We see from this study that employers can provide concrete support for employees experiencing somatic stress symptoms, but can also encourage co-workers to support one another in the first place and minimize the effects triggered by their workload,” Biron said.
“With the enormous economic losses due to absenteeism and with this still being a poorly understood phenomenon, the results of this new study are shedding light on those factors influencing sickness absence and which can be considered in the effort to reduce the losses without compromising work ethic and commitment.”