Contribution of social support to employee psychological well-being: an exploratory mixed-methods case study
Kowalski, Tina Helen Parkin
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Stress and mental health issues are now the most common cause of workplace absence. Increasing evidence points to the need for organisations to take steps to enhance well-being at work for employees. Social support has been identified as one key factor affecting employee psychological well-being, however, the definition and conceptualisation of the term continues to be debated. To date, research examining the relationship between social support and well-being at work tends to be predominantly quantitative and to prioritise work-based sources of support above other sources of support. Few workplace interventions aimed at improving employee well-being appear to have a specific focus on enhancing social support. This thesis presents findings from a mixed-methods case study of a large, public sector organisation in Scotland. The study had four phases: an online survey (n=158), semi-structured interviews (n=31), a diary phase (n=11) and a final interview (n=11). Higher levels of social support were associated with a higher level of psychological well-being. Findings highlighted the importance of various work and non-work based sources of social support, such as peer support and support from friends, and various dimensions of support too, such as ‘distant vs. proximal’ support. Potential negative effects of social support were also identified, for example, when perceived as interfering. Women reported higher levels of support and of positive mental well-being than did men. Interview and diary data revealed a range of contextual, organisational and individual factors that affected both access to and availability of social support, and the relationship between social support and employee well-being. Recent organisational changes appeared to be particularly influential. Employee opinion regarding existing organisational well-being initiatives varied on the basis of whether the support was formal or informal and in terms of perceived versus received support. Social support was valued highly by respondents with regard to improving employee well-being. Open and honest communication, physical presence of support and familiarity with context-specific knowledge were of particular pertinence. This thesis contributes to knowledge in three ways. Substantively, the importance of examining social support more holistically is highlighted in order to better understand the relationship between social support and employee well-being. Methodologically, this mixed methods approach proved fruitful in generating a richness and depth of data largely untapped by previous, predominantly quantitative, studies. Finally, the findings have practical implications for HR personnel and policy makers as they offer an insight into the contribution of various sources and dimensions of social support to employee well-being, as understood by employees.