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Employees and companies benefit from supportive supervisors

Ellen Ernst Kossek Ellen Ernst Kossek is an expert on work and life, how to integrate the two and make both better. She has conducted extensive research on how changes in the work environment can not only improve the health and well-being of workers, but benefit their employers at the same time.

Kossek joined Purdue in January as the Basil S. Turner Professor of Management and is also the Research Director at the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence.

“Our research shows that teaching managers to be more supportive can have cost savings for turnover and lower stress,” Kossek says. “Most previous research has been on general measures of emotional support, but not on specific behaviors by the boss.”

Research on supportive supervisors

In a paper published online June 3, 2013 by the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (Measurement Development and Validation of the Family Supportive Supervisor Behavior Short-Form), Kossek and her co-authors explore the behavior of supportive supervisors and how to measure it using a brief, four-question form.

The research builds on previous NIH-funded work with Leslie Hammer from Portland State University. The earlier research developed a 14-item assessment to measure Family Supportive Supervisor Behavior. The new assessment is more practical, because employees are more likely to respond to shorter surveys, and it’s less costly to use.

Both assessments cover four dimensions – emotional support, instrumental support, role modeling behaviors and creative work-family management. The project is part of the national Work, Family & Health Network.

Employee well-being

Positive work-family climate is critical for employee well-being, according to Kossek. When a supervisor is supportive, employees have more control over their work hours, less obligation to work when they are sick, lower perceived stress, and higher reports of adequate time with family.

On the other hand, when Family Supportive Supervisor Behavior is lacking employees will have more perceived stress, feel obligated to work when sick and consider looking for a different job.

The study showed that Family Supportive Supervisor Behaviors can be assessed with a brief, four-question form that works across low-income retail workers as well as higher income information technology workers.

Short form

The short form’s four question assessment on Family Supportive Supervisor Behaviors:

  1. Your supervisor makes you feel comfortable talking to him/her about your conflicts between work and non-work (emotional support)
  2. Your supervisor demonstrates effective behaviors in how to juggle work and non-work issues (role modeling)
  3. Your supervisor works effectively with employees to creatively solve conflicts between work and non-work (instrumental support)
  4. Your supervisor organizes the work in your department or unit to jointly benefit employees and the company (creative work-family management)

Supervisor training

A supervisor can make life much easier or more difficult for workers by approving or denying flexible work hours and scheduling changes. “Leaders really need to be explicitly trained and socialized to care about personal life,” Kossek says.

The research team developed a 30-45 minute computer-based training for supervisors to teach behaviors for balancing work and life. An entire store was trained, and a group luncheon was held that encouraged managers to engage in goal-setting to transfer the training to the job.

Kossek says the group training is important. “If I train 15 managers, it’s going to shift the culture. Changing how managers relate to workers results in less turnover and fewer depressive symptoms in workers.”

Training supervisors leads to increased employee perceptions of Family Supportive Supervisor Behaviors and in turn increased employee job satisfaction, physical health, and decreased intentions to leave for those employees with high levels of family-to-work conflict.

What’s next

Kossek is currently adapting this training for employers and supervisors to help reduce turnover of returning Oregon National Guard veterans. This new research project is being funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. The training will also be made available for Purdue alumni and employees who want to partner on research and organizational change initiatives.