How Supervisors Can Help, or Hurt, Employee Recovery

How Supervisors Can Help - or Hurt - Employee Recovery

New research from the University of Arizona Eller College of Management shows that supervisors play an important role in helping employees recover from work-related stress at home.

The study, entitled “Better Together? Examining Profiles of Employee Recovery Experiences,” was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and examined how employees engage in multiple strategies jointly to recover from work—what the authors coin “profiles of recovery experiences.”  It was also the first to examine how supervisors can help or hurt employees’ recovery.

Allison Gabriel

Allison Gabriel, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations.

“We live in a society where employees often describe working long hours and feel pressure to continue working at home into the night and on weekends,” said Allison Gabriel, assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona. “But, employees have a limited number of cognitive resources, and when these resources get depleted, employees need to use time after work to recover and prepare for the next day to ensure productivity and well-being. Our work aims to further emphasize what supervisors can do to make sure proper recovery is actually happening.”

To examine the role that supervisors played in the recovery process, Gabriel and her co-authors had 401 full-time employees from a large North American university provide ratings of five recovery experiences—psychological detachment (mentally disconnecting from work), relaxation (taking time for leisure), mastery (taking time to learn new things), control (having autonomy in how time is spent after work), and problem-solving pondering (thinking about future work events).

The employees’ supervisors then rated how supportive they were of employee recovery at home—something that Gabriel and her team coined “supervisor support for recovery”—as well as the quality of the relationship they had with the employee they were evaluating, which is known as leader-member exchange.

“Involving supervisors in our work was critical,” Gabriel said. “It was the first time, to our knowledge, that anyone had asked supervisors to rate the extent that they encouraged employees to relax, recover, and replenish their energy after they leave work.”

Results showed that when supervisors supported recovery, employees were more likely to use psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control experiences in combination, and were less likely to continue thinking about work at home. These employees also felt less emotionally exhausted and experienced fewer health complaints like backaches, headaches, and problems sleeping.

However, one of the biggest surprises related to leader-member exchange: when supervisors reported higher quality relationships with their employees, these employees were less likely to recover at home. Instead, these employees tended to spend more time thinking about work at home and less time recovering, which resulted in more exhaustion and negative health outcomes.

“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 supervisor down,” Gabriel said, adding that these results provide an opportunity for supervisors to recognize their high-quality employee relationships can come with a cost.

“We hope our research encourages supervisors and employees alike to take a serious look at their corporate cultures and see the bigger picture. By encouraging employees to leave work at work and engage in recovery, it will benefit everyone in the long run.”

The study was co-authored by Andrew Bennett, assistant professor of Management at Old Dominion University; Charles Calderwood, assistant professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University; Jason Dahling, associate professor of Psychology at The College of New Jersey; and John Trougakos, associate professor of Management at University of Toronto-Scarborough.