Research on organisational support tends to focus on perceptions of support, such as 'My manager helps me through tough times'. This can make it difficult to identify causality: do supportive managers make high functioning teams or do struggling teams just fail to spot the lifelines their managers try to throw them? Perhaps unsurprisingly, perceived support has a flaky evidence signature, in some cases showing strong effects and in others none.
In response to this Sharon Parker and colleagues study of 48 junior doctors focused on support that varied systematically. This was the introduction of a specialist nurse available on certain shifts, there to coach on skill use, pass on patient information from past shifts, and provide emotional support. The study design looked at within-subject variation - how the same doctor responds when they do or don't have support - which makes the bias of an individual rater less problematic.
The night shift is challenging, calling for the five on-shift doctors to oversee the running of an entire hospital. But for them it's also an opportunity: to gain and develop skills in response to its demands, and to put their fresher eyes to the hospital's processes and call out possible improvements. Parker's team were interested in whether support allowed doctors to pursue these activities - skill development and manifesting voice - or whether the resources it provided would be sunk elsewhere. They predicted doctors experiencing high negative affect would be preoccupied with their struggles and focus on trying to reduce personal overload at the expense of voice and learning. These elements were all measured with surveys taken immediately at end-of-shift, with experiences still fresh.
These hypotheses were confirmed by analysis, which suggested that anxiety, rather than depression, was the element of negative motion that tipped doctors from attempting broader tasks into simply getting a grip on things. In addition, support was associated with better performance of core job activities, but only when the doctor believed they where clear on the roles of other shift colleagues, interpreted as insight that allow support to be used in a more targeted and efficient manner.
This study demonstrates a number of benefits of structural support. Improving core job performance, that here ultimately affects patient care, is clearly important, but the authors fix attention to the activities that fall outside the job specification. When junior doctors are strained and experiencing anxiety, support merely provides an important safety valve. But when they are spared these negative influences, the resources offered from support allow them to broaden and build their skill-set, and engage in changing their organisation for the better: 'their fresh perspective places them in an ideal position to identify unsafe practices and poor methods.' Finding these positive spirals can have long-term benefits for an organisation, building assets and helping it to improve.
Parker, S.K., Johnson, A., Collins, C., & Nguyen, H. (2013). Making the Most of Structural Support: Moderating Influence of Employees Clarity and Negative Affect. Academy of Management Journal,, 56 (3), 867-892 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2010.0927
Viswesvaran, C., Sanchez, J. I., & Fisher, J. 1999. The role of social support in the process of work stress: A meta-analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 54a2: 314 –334.