U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

How supervisors can help – or hurt – your recovery from work-related stress: U of T research

John Trougakos: “Supervisors have to support their employees’ recovery from work” (photo by Ken Jones)

Supervisors play an important role in helping support employees who are recovering at home from work-related stress – but they must tread carefully, new research from John Trougakos shows.

That's because employees who have a good relationship with their supervisors may worry too much about letting their boss down, says the University of Toronto Scarborough's Trougakos, an expert on organizational behaviour.

“There is more than one strategy to recover from work-related stress,” Trougakos says. “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.”

An associate professor with U of T Scarborough’s department of management and the Rotman School of Management, Trougakos co-authored the study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Researchers 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 employees' 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 was the finding 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 and 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.

The study also found 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. 

Trougakos says work-recovery starts at the top of an organization and depends on 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.”