Studies Suggest Link Between Supportive Management Practices and Employee Wellness

Working for managers trained in 'family supportive behavior' can improve physical health and job satisfaction.

Managers take note: A flexible workplace can make employees, their families and their workplaces healthier and happier, according to recent studies conducted by industrial organizational psychologists.

Leslie Hammer, director of the Occupational Health Psychology program at Portland State University, and Ellen Ernst Kossek, who teaches HR management and organizational behavior at Michigan State University's School of Labor and Industrial Relations, say changes in workplace flexibility and improved supervisor support for workers -- such as managers showing interest in an employee's personal life or caring about an employee's family needs -- can result in a win-win situation.

"There is a health care debate going on right now in America, and that is important, but we should also be looking at ways flexible workplaces can benefit work and the family and their health as well," Kossek said.

Through their research, conducted over the past four years, Hammer and Kossek found that employees with managers trained in supporting a flexible workplace had better physical health, were more satisfied with their jobs and experienced less turnover than those employees whose managers did not have the training in family supportive behavior.

"There's a definite link between supportive management and employee well-being," Kossek said.

They presented their findings Oct. 13 in Washington, D.C., at a congressional briefing titled "Workplace Practice, Health and Well-Being: Initial Research Findings from the Work, Family & Health Network." The briefing discussed the findings of independent studies carried out by four Work, Family and Health Network research teams, which include Hammer and Kossek.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched the network's first phase in 2005 to study the effects of company policies on employee health in such industries as long-term elderly care, hospitality and grocery stores as well as several large companies. A second phase is now getting underway.

'Emotional Support Is Important'

Hammer and Kossek's study focused on training managers on how to engage in family supportive supervisory behaviors in 12 grocery stores in Ohio and Michigan. They trained half of the managers at the stores in providing emotional and structural support, creating a healthy work environment and working with other managers.

Structural support includes taking the time to work with employees to reduce scheduling conflicts between work and family obligations. Emotional support includes such actions as acknowledging employees' responsibilities outside of the workplace and understanding the conflicts that can arise, Kossek explained.

"Emotional support is important," Kossek said. "In some of the stores we studied, managers weren't even saying 'hello' to their employees. Managers have to be creative to make it win-win and to think about how worker flexibility can help the workers and also the health of the organization."

Their initial findings have been reported in Harvard Business Review and Journal of Management.

Second Phase Will Focus on Work-Family Conflict

Hammer and Kossek are moving into the second phase of their research, which is focusing on increasing management support and worker training in flexible work environments in the telecommunications and health care industries.

"We are using a very sound experimental design where we are first developing the intervention and then we are implementing it in 15 intervention sites and 15 control sites in each industry," Hammer explained. "The overall intervention is aimed at increasing supervisor support for families and also works to increase worker control over work time."

The researchers hope their work and findings bring new life to the topic of work-family conflict.

"You can support someone to do their job, but it is also important for managers to learn to support work and family integration and to support all of the other aspects of employees' lives outside of the workplace," Kossek said.

Hammer and Kossek are members of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), an international group of more than 7,800 industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement.

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