Abigail Klein Leichman
March 18, 2012, Updated September 11, 2012

Picture by Gili Yaari/Flash90
When supervisors offer emotional and instrumental support, employees are less likely to need time off, according to new findings.

Anybody who’s ever worked for a living sometimes experiences the stomachaches, fatigue and headaches that come from on-the-job stress. At times the pressure is so intense that workers need to take personal or sick days to recover. Those absences are costly — estimated at $225.8 billion per year in the United States.

Researchers have already connected the dots between job stress and health problems. Taking it one step further, Dr. Michal Biron of the University of Haifa’s Graduate School of Management wanted to research exactly how interpersonal workplace dynamics influence workers’ burnout symptoms, and whether those dynamics affect their tendency to take sick days to recover.

Soon to be published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Biron’s conclusion is that when their supervisors offer emotional and instrumental support, employees are less likely to need time off.

The study focused on 241 employees at a Chinese factory. In Chinese culture, the relationship between supervisors and workers is more distanced than in Western cultures, making this setting a particularly rich context for examining the effect of supervisor support on absenteeism.

Happy employees are healthy employees

The workers were asked to report on common complaints, such as headaches or muscle soreness, that they experienced over the past month and to indicate how often their supervisor provided emotional and instrumental support (such as a lightened workload or stress management training) once they experienced those stress-related symptoms. The employer provided data on sickness absence.

The results showed that supervisor support is more likely to keep the worker from taking sick leave, probably because the worker feels inclined to reciprocate the boss’s kindness by putting in full effort on the job.

And rather than staying put while feeling unwell, workers given this sort of support — especially soon after symptoms start appearing — are more likely to overcome the physical effects of job pressures. They continue to work productively, leaving recovery for the normal after-work hours, explained Biron.

“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,” said Biron, head of the university’s MBA program.

“With the enormous economic losses due to absenteeism and with this still being a poorly understood phenomenon,” she added, “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.”

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