By Ellen Ernst Kossek & Leslie B. Hammer
Work-life has become more complex caused by COVID-19. Managers and supervisors must now take better care when handing employees who are worried about their health, dealing with sick family members, childcare issues, or other fallout from the ongoing pressures. There is also heightened concern among auto recycling facilities about employee retention. This study proves that improving the training for management to be more supportive to employee concerns drastically improves retention, moral and even employee safety, especially in the current workplace climate.
Teaching managers to be more supportive of their direct reports’ work/life issues can be a simple and effective route to improving employee health and satisfaction, according to our multiyear study of hundreds of frontline workers and dozens of supervisors in middle-America supermarkets.
Supervisors are eager for such help: Many want to be supportive, but with companies cutting training budgets, they haven’t been taught basic management skills. Worse, it’s common for ﬁrms to reward supervisors for making their numbers, regardless of the human cost. That’s a particularly shortsighted policy when it comes to low-wage workers, many of whom struggle with family and personal needs and may not see eye-to-eye with their managers on the primacy of work.
To increase supervisors’ sensitivity to – and ability to handle – employees’ work/life issues, we ran small sessions on how to plan coverage and deal with employees’ scheduling conﬂicts. They consisted of onetime, self-paced 30-to-45-minute computer tutorials followed by 75-minute face-to-face discussions. The training focused on four kinds of actions: providing emotional support – that is, acknowledging employees’ sometimes extensive responsibilities outside work; providing structural support by working with employees ahead of time to resolve scheduling conﬂicts; modeling healthful behavior by, for example, showing that it is acceptable to occasionally attend important family functions during work hours; and partnering with other managers to strategically address work/life issues through initiatives like interdepartmental cross-training, which increases coverage options.
Our study showed that prior to the training, employees who perceived their managers as unsupportive had significantly worse job attitudes, blood pressure, heart rates, sleep quality, and general overall health, and were less likely to be with the company a year later. After supervisors went through the training, workers’ perceptions that their supervisors were supportive on work/life issues had improved significantly. This had important additional consequences in employee health, satisfaction, and safety.
Once they viewed their managers as being more supportive, employees reported improvements in general overall health as measured by such factors as pain and psychological problems. This effect was most pronounced among employees who previously had the highest levels of work/life conﬂict – for example, a frequent need to change their hours to accommodate children’s schedules.
Employees of the trained supervisors also were more satisfied in their jobs than a control group of workers whose managers did not undergo training. The employees of the trained supervisors had a lower inclination to seek jobs elsewhere than the control group and reported a greater willingness to comply with safety programs.
To reinforce the training and ensure that it was implemented, we asked all trained supervisors to set individual goals for using what they had learned (for example, increasing the number of times they asked employees about their families or scheduling needs). We also asked them to record their supportive behaviors on index cards for the next few weeks. After this stage of the training, a perceptual gap between managers and employees had closed: Before the training, one-third of employees had rated their managers as much less supportive than the managers rated them-selves, but afterward, the ratings were in close agreement for most trained pairs.
Both the training and the follow-up initiatives were simple and inexpensive – but they paid off handsomely by improving employee motivation and decreasing the risk of costly health problems. The study provides proof that small interventions can have a big impact throughout an organization.
Ellen Ernst Kossek is a professor of human resource management and organizational behavior at Michigan State University’s School of Labor & Industrial Relations in East Lansing and coauthor of CEO of Me: Creating a Life in the Flexible Job Age (Wharton School Publishing, 2008).
Leslie B. Hammer is a professor of psychology at Portland State University in Oregon and coauthor of Working Couples Caring for Children and Aging Parents (LEA Press, 2007). Kossek and Hammer codirect the Center for Work-Family Stress, Safety, and Health in Portland.