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Supervisor behaviour and employee psychological well-being

At a glance:
Many studies have shown that work influences physical and mental health.
mental health
Emotional wellbeing. Ability to cope with difficulty and enjoy life. THe absence of a mental health problem.
 The behaviour of supervisors can affect job stress, burnout and health problems.

Social support, stressful events and lifestyle can influence psychological
Refers to a person's perceptions, thought processes, emotions, personality and behaviour. Psychologists can treat mental health problems.
 health. Even when these influences are taken into account, however, supervisors' behaviour has a significant impact on the psychological health of their workers. In this study, people who reported positive behaviour from their supervisors were more likely to be in better psychological health. Negative behaviour from supervisors is associated with poorer psychological health, along with physical health problems, job stress and burnout.

The researchers concluded that improving supervisor behaviour – including consideration, communication, flexibility, organisation, leadership and support – could improve psychological health and reduce healthcare costs.
This paper examined workplace management and its impact on a person's wellbeing. Supervisor or management's approach impacts employees' physical and psychological health.

If you have concerns about your manager and the effect of their behaviour on your health think of ways you might deal with this in a constructive way. Talk to your supervisor, discuss your concerns with a trusted co-worker or manager, or with your treating doctor. Human resources departments are set up to assist with these kinds of issues in some companies.
A person's ability to return to work is influenced by their medical condition. However, studies have shown that other factors such as workplace relations can have an even greater impact on return to work outcomes.

Supervisors and line managers are key people in return to work management. This study shows that supervisor behaviour has a significant impact on psychological health and a person's general well-being.

Other studies summarised on this site show that supervisors can be trained in return to work management. Teaching supervisors appropriate communication skills can improve their sense of satisfaction and the way they deal with employees and return to work. The study supports improving supervisors training, skills and experience as part of return to work and employee management.
Treating practitioners can help workplaces manage return to work by giving them feedback when a patient has concerns about their supervisors approach. Supervisors have a challenging role with many responsibilities, including being under pressure to meet production goals and ensure workplace safety. People issues require time, and supervisors can find it difficult to juggle the management of workers and other responsibilities. Supervisors and line managers can be trained to provide them with appropriate skills to manage their staff.

Encourage workplaces to recognise that supervisors have a significant influence over the success of return to work management, which in turn will help patients return to work.
Claims managers can help employers understand that positive workplace systems, including practical policies and procedures that are clear to all staff, can help people to remain at work or return to work following an injury or illness.

It helps if senior managers at the workplace demonstrate quality management practice. Supervisors make the most substantial difference to employees' wellbeing and likelihood of returning to work. Employers should be encouraged to recognise the benefits of ensuring supervisors are well trained in people management skills.
Original Article, Authors & Publication Details:
B. Gilbreath and P. G. Benson (2004)

The contribution of supervisor behaviour to employee psychological well-being. Work & Stress 18(3): 255-266.

Organizational Leadership & Supervision, 288 Neff Hall, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, 2101 E. Coliseum Blvd, Fort Wayne, IN 46805-1499, USA
Management Department, MSC 3DJ, New Mexico State University, PO Box 30001, Las Cruces, NM 88003-8001, USA
Background, Study Objectives, How It Was Done:
Work can affect both physical and mental health. Psychological and social workplace factors – such as social support, job control and role conflict – have been linked to sickness absence, high blood pressure, depression, burnout, heart disease and other illnesses. They also affect healthcare costs.

To protect employees' health, it is necessary to reduce psychological and social risks in the workplace, as well as physical ones. One way to improve the work environment is to improve supervision. Previous studies have found that employees who believe their supervisors are considerate report better well-being, less job tension and less stress. When supervisors are less considerate and have a rigid approach to supervision, workers report higher rates of burnout, low job-satisfaction and health problems. Harsh or abusive supervision is associated with burnout and psychological distress.

This study aimed to investigate the effect of supervisor behaviour on employees' psychological health. Many factors impact psychological health, and the researchers wanted to determine if supervisors' behaviour was a significant influence or only a minor one. One previous study addressed this question and found that leadership contributes to burnout even when other factors such as age, experience, rigid rules and procedures and the employee's position are taken into account.

The researchers collected two sets of data. Questionnaires were completed by employees in healthcare and retail businesses, and by university students who worked at least 32 hours per week. 162 questionnaires in total were completed. 69% of the subjects were female and 92% were white. They were aged between 18 and 75 years, with an average age of 35. Their level of education varied from high school (13%), to some university (45%), associate degree (28%), bachelor degree (8%) or graduate degree (5%).

The researchers developed their own questionnaire to assess a range of supervisor behaviours that could influence employees' mental health. They reviewed scientific articles, gathered information from employees and interviewed supervisors. The questionnaire asked about 63 supervisor behaviours that related to control and flexibility, leadership, communication, social support, consideration, group management, organisation and looking out for employee well-being. This gave an overall idea of supervisors' behaviour.

Participants' mental wellbeing was also assessed, so that the psychological effects of supervisors' behaviour could be measured. The General Health Questionnaire (a widely used and reliable survey) was used. It measures problems in normal functioning, along with symptoms, anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction and depression.
A symptom of mood disorder characterized by intense feelings of loss, sadness, hopelessness, failure, and rejection. Major depression is likely to interfere significantly with everyday activity, with symptoms including insomnia, irritability, weight loss, and a lack of interest in outside events. The disorder may last several months or longer and may recur, but it is generally reversible in the short run.

Information was also collected on the participants' age, gender, level of social support, stressful life events, stressful work events and health habits. These factors influence psychological and physical health, stress levels and burnout. For example, people who have stronger social support at work tend to take less sick leave. They have better cardiovascular
involving the heart and the blood vessels
 and endocrine health and a stronger immune system. Stressful events at work can lead to anxiety, depression, burnout, somatic
Somatic refers to the physical body. The term 'somatic symptoms' often refers to physical symptoms that are in part related to emotional issues.
 symptoms and higher healthcare costs. Lifestyle and health-related behaviour, meanwhile, is thought to be the most important influence on physical and mental health.

The researchers were able to take these other influences into account when they were analysing the effect of the supervisors' behaviour on the employees' health. This meant that they could be more confident in the accuracy of their results.
Study Findings:
This study found that even when factors like age, stressful events and lifestyle were taken into account, supervisors' behaviour had an influence on employees' psychological health.

If employees rated their supervisor's behaviour above average, there was 63% chance that their psychological health would be above average. People who described negative supervisor behaviour were more likely to have poorer mental health.

Aspects of supervisor behaviour could be considered social support, rather than workplace support. However, the effect of supervisor support remained even if factors that could be considered social support were not included in the analysis.

Supervisor support was rated in many ways, including questions about:

  1. Job control e.g. ‘Is flexible about how I accomplish my objectives'
  2. Leadership e.g. ‘Makes me feel like part of something useful, significant, and valuable'
  3. Communication e.g. ‘Encourages employees to ask question';
  4. Consideration e.g. ‘Shows appreciation for a job well done'
  5. Social support e.g. ‘Steps in when employees need help or support'
  6. Group maintenance e.g. ‘Fails to properly monitor and manage group dynamics'
  7. Organizing e.g. ‘Plans work to level out the load, reduce peaks and bottlenecks'
  8. Looking out for employee well-being e.g. ‘Strikes the proper balance between productivity and employee well-being'
The work environment has a significant influence on mental health. Social support at work, job control and stressful work events are a few examples of workplace factors that affect psychological wellbeing. Workplace factors can influence sickness absence, high blood pressure, depression, burnout, heart disease and other illnesses.

Supervisors' behaviour can also influence an employee's wellbeing. This study found that even when other important issues like social support and lifestyle were taken into account, supervisors' behaviour had a significant impact on psychological wellbeing. Employees whose supervisors were more positive and considerate tended to have better mental health, while employees who described their supervisors in a negative way were more likely to have poor mental health.

In this study, elements of positive supervisor behaviour included:

Being flexible about how employees accomplish tasks
Showing good leadership (e.g. making employees feel as though their work is valuable, maintaining group dynamics)
Good communication
Social support
Organisation of work
Looking out for employee well-being

The researchers concluded that improving supervisor behaviour could improve employees' psychological health and well-being and reduce healthcare costs.
No PubMed Abstract Available
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