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Supervisors can help – or hurt – employee recovery from work-related stress

Associate Professor John Trougakos from U of T Scarborough’s Department of Management looked at the important role supervisors play in employee recovery from work-related stress. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Supervisors play an important role in helping support their employees recovering at home from work-related stress.

But according to a new study, even those supervisors that have a great relationship with their employees need to be extra vigilant that they’re not cutting into recovery time.  

The study, co-authored by Associate Professor John Trougakos from U of T Scarborough’s Department of Management and the Rotman School of Management, finds that employee recovery from work-related stress often relies heavily on the role played by their supervisor. 

“There is more than one strategy to recover from work-related stress,” says Trougakos, an expert on organizational behaviour.

“We wanted to look at how these different strategies function together, to what extent people are using them, and the role supervisors play in helping employees recover from stress.”

The study, which is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, asked more than 400 employees to rate five work-recovery experiences. These experiences included psychological detachment from work, relaxation, engaging in hobbies, having control over how their time is spent away from work, and thinking about future work events.

Supervisors were also asked to rate how supportive they were of their employee’s recovery at home as well as the quality of leader-member exchange, which evaluates the relationship supervisors have with their employees.

One of the biggest surprises in the study involved leader-member exchange. They found that when supervisors had a higher quality relationship with an employee, that employee was less likely to recover at home.

“Although having a good, supportive relationship with your supervisor is important, our work suggests that these employees may feel an obligation to ‘bring work home’ in order to not let their supervisors down,” says Allison Gabriel, assistant professor at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management and lead author on the study.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” adds Trougakos.

“Supervisors have to support their employees’ recovery from work because if they don’t that employee will always be thinking about work even outside of the workplace.” 

He adds it’s critical for employees to detach from work and recover adequately or there can be long-term consequences for their long-term health well-being.

It also doesn’t help that modern technology is conspiring to make it more difficult for employees to detach from work. Trougakos says supervisors should be mindful of sending a late night email because there’s a good chance their employee will see it pop up on their cell phone.

“The employee will either respond to the email or it will be on their minds when they’re trying to unwind and get to sleep,” he says, adding that it’s a better idea to set the email on a timer to go out first thing in the morning.

Another key finding of the study is that when supervisors actively support their employees recovery from work it has a positive outcome not only on employee health and well-being, but also their productivity at work. 

According to Trougakos a big takeaway is that work-recovery starts at the top of an organization and how its work culture is defined.

“If employees are not taking the time to reduce stress, recover from work and be healthy, it will end up costing organizations more money in the long-run through burnout, sick leave, absenteeism and turnover,” he says.

“If they are healthy, employees will also be more productive and this will make the company money. Not to mention employees will be happy, which is also important.” 


© University of Toronto Scarborough