Employees Need Support – But It Might Be Less Complicated Than You Think

Key Points:

  1. Adequate support is essential for employee well-being and positively influences their behavior and attitudes towards work, leading to improved commitment, performance, and less turnover intention.
  2. Emotional and instrumental support in the workplace are strongly correlated, regardless of whether it comes from a supervisor or co-worker, but the ideal support system may vary depending on the emotional labor demands of the job.
  3. Organizations can improve their workers’ health and satisfaction by creating a high-support environment, where all members of the organization are committed to helping out where and how they can. Supervisors providing instrumental task-related support can lead to better performance and job satisfaction, while emotional support can improve work-life balance and physical health.

Adequate support is essential for employees. It has significant effects on worker wellbeing in and out of the workplace and positively influences behaviors and attitudes on the job. This leads to an overall improvement in commitment, performance and less turnover intention. While these outcomes feel almost intuitive, the logistics of an efficient support system can seem, at times, to be more complicated for management to effectively execute:

–           Should support come directly from a supervisor or does this add too much to their existing workload?

–           What kind of support generates the best effects? For example, do workers mostly need to be supported emotionally or instrumentally with specific task-relevant resources?

–           How does the perfect support system vary depending on the occupation requirements? For example, do healthcare workers profit from the same support as people working in an office job?

In a recent study, Michael Mathieu, Kevin J. Eschleman and Danqiao Cheng used two complimentary studies published in the same journal article to examine the positive effects of support in the workplace and how they are moderated depending on occupation type, source of support (supervisor or co-worker), support scale type (received vs. available) and support type (instrumental support or emotional support). The authors conducted a meta-analysis with 142 independent samples and 68,354 participants and then performed a subsequent multi-wave comparison study to further support the findings of their original meta-analysis.

You May Not Want to Overthink It

When testing for the relationship between emotional and instrumental support, Mathieu’s work found a strong correlation between both support types which remains consistent when considering if support comes from a supervisor or co-worker. This might come as a relief to those in management positions who struggle to offer support to workers in emotional distress while also directly assisting with task-related issues. It also implies that those who provide support in the workplace may achieve the best results by tailoring their supportive behaviors to what they are naturally comfortable with as support in one form may follow the other.

Consider your people’s labor demands.

While emotional support and instrumental support are strongly correlated, the study finds a lesser correlation in occupations lower in emotional labor demands (p = .62) compared with occupations higher in emotional labor demands (p = .79). This suggests that one might expect greater results from offering specific resources for both emotional and task-related issues in, for instance, a 9-to-5-office job in comparison to a job in the healthcare field where employees may be engaging with a lot of emotional labour tied to maintaining the appearance of a happy and collected demeanor in front of sick patients or in the emotional circumstance of losing a patient. An organization that does not require significant emotional labor from their employees may profit from distinct training on how to best provide each type of support to those in need.

Looking for specific outcomes? Here are some more detailed findings…

–          If an organization is looking to lower healthcare costs or improve their workers physical health, it may be helpful to create an environment high in emotional support. As the study suggests a stronger association with physical symptoms exists with emotional support rather than instrumental support that’s aimed at helping with specific work assignments.

–           Focusing on the availability of emotional support may also help provide workers with more work-life balance. The findings suggest that emotional support is more strongly associated with work-family conflict compared with instrumental support. They also find a stronger correlation with the issue of depersonalization, which (in a healthy way) can lead employees to productively limit their own involvement with the organization and take breaks and recover more effectively.

–           An organization wanting better performance may profit from establishing a strong system for providing instrumental support as it is more strongly associated with role overload, task performance and job satisfaction than emotional support.

–           Supervisors are likely to provide more value when helping with specific task-related issues than a co-worker can. The study shows instrumental support from supervisors to be more strongly correlated with variables than support from co-workers in 5 out of 8 comparisons.

Takeaways for your practice:

  • Create a high-support environment: Organizations can improve their workers’ health and satisfaction by creating a culture of support where all members of the organization are committed to helping out where and how they can. This will lead to a self-enforcing upward spiral for supportive behavior.
  • Focus on the availability of emotional support: Focusing on the availability of emotional support may also help provide workers with more work-life balance, which can lead to better performance and job satisfaction.
  • Proactively offer emotional support: proactively offering emotional support can nip waning support in the bud and could additionally work to improve commitment, work-life balance, and the physical health of your employees. This may be particularly relevant for organizations that want to lower healthcare costs or improve their workers’ physical health.
  • Proactively provide instrumental task-related support: Supervisors proactively providing specific task-related support could lead to better performance and job satisfaction, which will benefit the overall performance of the organization.
  • Be sure to tailor support to the employee and work: A one-size-fits-all support system doesn’t exist. The perfect support system may likely vary depending on the individual in question and the labor demands of the job. touch base with people frequently and try to make sure you’re trying to exceed people’s needs.

The main objective for organizations looking to improve their worker’s health and satisfaction – and with its performance, commitment and output – should be to create a high-support environment. The evidence suggests that support from supervisors is positively correlated with support from coworkers which in turn will lead to a self-enforcing upward spiral for supportive behavior. While it can seem daunting to actively create an extensive support system, the findings imply that a simple approach will still generate positive results. The ideal system is a culture of support where all members of the organization are committed to helping out where and how they can. Utilizing people’s natural abilities will lead to the desired effects without adding too many responsibilities to the existing workloads. As with most things however, a vital component is the management’s commitment to these values.

Trustworthiness score:

The trustworthiness of the study is moderate (80%). This means there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

Did you like this evidence summary? Share it with your network by clicking on the buttons below!

Follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and subscribe to our newsletter to receive the most trustworthy scientific research summarized in less than 1000 words!


Mathieu, M., Eschleman, K. J., & Cheng, D. (2018, October 18). Meta-Analytic and Multiwave Comparison of Emotional Support and Instrumental Support in the Workplace. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000135

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.