The Role of Organizational Support and Healthy Work DesignPosted on by
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives and has had a significant effect on the well-being of workers (APA, 2020; Kaiser, 2020; Nigam et al., 2020). As the nation aims to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases and protect public health, employers are working to keep their businesses afloat while providing a safe environment for employees and customers. At the same time, workers are trying to adopt protective health practices and to be productive while balancing concerns about their health and the health and well-being of their family. Supporting workers well-being through healthy work design is the central focus of NIOSH’s Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Program. Research on the effect of the current outbreak is ongoing. Existing literature and lessons learned around healthier work design and better organizational practices are being applied to understand and support workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This blog, focused on organizational support to reduce employee stress, is one in a series of Healthy Work Design (HWD) sponsored blogs describing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on America’s workers.
In a time when workers are faced with increasing job and economic insecurity (APA, 2020), work stability and feeling hopeful about the future may be more important than ever. It is essential that supervisors promote well-being through a healthier work design and lead in a way that supports workers’ four primary needs of trust, compassion, stability, and hope (Gallup, 2020). In line with organizational support theory (Eisenberger & Stinglhamber, 2011), which has been found to be related to worker health and safety outcomes, it is especially critical that organizations value and show support to workers during difficult times. Previous research has shown the importance of a safe and health-supportive work environment (e.g., one that supports worker financial security, does not cause occupational stress, and advances well-being) (Eisenberger & Stinglhamber, 2011; Kossek et al., 2014). Employers can help demonstrate compassion and support for their workforce through:
- Fair, sincere, and autonomous treatment where employees have a say in the pace or direction of work,
- Adequate pay and benefits, including paid sick leave,
- Flexible work environments with open communication to facilitate trust, and
- Health and safety being a priority of the organization.
For all work environments, it is important to consider aspects of job redesign and restructuring to control and minimize exposure to risk, stress, and other negative health outcomes. Transition to telework or other alternate work arrangements has been beneficial to some, allowing for continued productivity. However, it has also caused additional stress to employees; and, in some ways, resulted in limited quantity and quality of organizational support (Bentley et al., 2016; French et al., 2018). The current pandemic has blended work and life in unprecedented ways, such as increasing role demands and blurring work-life boundaries (Sinclair et al., 2020). One example includes working at home while caring for children or another family member.
Consequently, helping employees achieve work-life fit is crucial. Work-life fit encourages finding time for ourselves and those we care about, but it takes a different approach than work-life balance. Specifically, too much focus on “balance” can add stress because it is not always feasible as demands from each aspect of our lives continually shift. To help employees achieve better work-life fit, organizations can enhance current training opportunities, so supervisors have the knowledge and ability to engage in work-family management practices. Work-family management practices strive to redesign work to support employees with any conflicting work-life demands to benefit both organizations and employees (Sinclair et al., 2020). Utilizing this approach, supervisors can:
- Schedule frequent check-ins,
- Engage in positive social interactions,
- Model best practices by avoiding late-in-the-day or after-hours emails and meetings (this effort demonstrates that supervisors are also taking care of his or her own work/life challenges),
- Support flexible work schedules, especially for those assuming educator roles for school-aged dependents or caregiver roles, and
- Promote cross-training and the ability to trade shifts (if applicable) to enable employee flexibility.
A large percentage of American employees work demands do not allow for telework or alternate work arrangements, posing even further stressors. There is information on daily life and coping during the COVID-19 pandemic for those who need resources about stress, caring for children, and other homelife issues, including the ability to organize and sustain self-isolation at home to protect family members from potential COVID-19 exposures brought from the workplace.
To help minimize workers’ exposure to COVID-19, organizations should develop and implement a COVID-19 pandemic response plan. This response plan should include recommendations found in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) interim guidance for businesses and employers, such as:
- Allow employees to work remotely part of the time, or full-time, if possible,
- Schedule and allow staggered shifts,
- Develop and maintain physical/social distancing protocols allowing individuals to stay at least 6 feet apart,
- Update engineering controls, such as plexiglass dividers,
- Ensure personal protective equipment is readily available for the job duties that require it,
- Provide paid sick leave to encourage employees to stay home if they feel ill or need to care for a sick family member,
- Communicate and engage employees regarding COVID-19 policies.
CDC has offered guidance on worker safety and support for a variety of occupations; however, research into organizational and supervisor support for Total Worker Health® has shown that, in situations of atypical stress, such as the current pandemic, the roles of supervisors and organizations in understanding and responding to health, safety, and well-being concerns to help alleviate stress has never been more important (Sinclair et al., 2020). In this regard, finding opportunities to increase employee involvement in decision-making and allowing sufficient autonomy in a less certain environment may result in workers having a greater sense of control and improve mental health (National Occupational Research Agenda, 2020). A practical example is establishing a health and safety committee that brings hourly and salaried workers together to brainstorm solutions to current stressors in the workplace (McGuire et al., 2020).
Please consult the resources below for additional information.
Emily J. Haas, PhD, is a Senior Research Behavioral Scientist for the NIOSH Pittsburgh Mining Research Division.
Jeannie A.S. Nigam, MS, is NIOSH Co-Coordinator of the Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Cross Sector program.
Jessica M.K. Streit, PhD, CHES® is a member of the Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Cross-Sector program Steering Committee.
Sudha Pandalai, MD, PhD, is a Physician for the NIOSH Division of Science Integration.
L. Casey Chosewood, MD, MPH, is Director of the NIOSH Office for Total Worker Health®.
Mary B. O’Connor, MS, is an Occupational Safety and Health Specialist for the Western States Division.
This blog is a part of a series from NIOSH’s Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Program on issues impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Other blogs include:
Bentley TA, Teo STT, McLeod L, Tan F, Bosua R, Gloet M. The role of organizational support in teleworker wellbeing: A socio-technical systems approach. Appl Ergon. 2016;52:207-215.
Eisenberger R, Stinglhamber F. Perceived organizational support: Fostering enthusiastic and productive employees. American Psychological Association; 2011.
French KA, Dumani S, Allen TD, Shockley KM. A meta-analysis of work-family conflict and social support. Psychol Bull. 2018;144(3):284–314.
Kossek EE, Hammer LB, Kelly EL, Moen P. Designing work, family and health organizational change initiatives. Organ Dyn. 2014;43(1):53- 63.
McGuire J, Haas EJ, Hattesohl R. Employee engagement: Developing and using safety committees that work. Rock Products, 2020:32-38.
Nigam J, Streit JMK, Ray TK, Swanson N. COVID-19 stress among your workers? Healthy work design and well-being solutions are critical. NIOSH Science Blog, 2020. Accessed on June 18, 2020
Sinclair RR, Allen T, Barber L, Bergman M, Britt T, Butler A, Ford M, Hammer L, Kath L, Probst T, Yuan Z. Occupational health science in the time of COVID-19: Now more than ever. Editorial/Commentary for Occup Health Sci. 2020.