Help and encouragement from colleagues is crucial for those returning from sick leave, according to a study that suggests “social support” is a key factor in wellbeing and a sense of “fairness” at work.
The study, by researchers at the University of East Anglia and Stockholm University in Sweden, found a clear link between employees’ health and whether or not they felt fairly treated at work.
“It comes down to managers really caring about their employees”
In addition, the study found that the most significant factor in that link was the amount of support workers felt they got from their colleagues.
The researchers said their findings could have implications for how managers help people return to work after a period of absence or support those struggling to manage with long-term health issues.
Improving support around staff health and wellbeing has been a key focus of recent NHS policy also designed to boost retention and cut sickness absence rates.
According to the study, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, employers should make sure they have well-designed routines for workers with health problems.
However, managers must also take into account the wider work environment, including “social support” from colleagues on the ground.
The research team, led by East Anglia’s Norwich Business School, used data from a large-scale survey that has been carried out in Sweden every two years since 2006.
The results from 3,200 respondents showed a clear link between three key health indicators – health as rated by participants, depressive symptoms and sickness absence – and social support at work.
In turn, social support at work was also strongly linked to perceptions of fairness in decision-making.
“Our results show a strong association between feelings of unfairness and the amount of perceived support from colleagues,” said lead author Dr Constanze Eib, an expert in organisational behaviour.
“It could be that when you come back to work you still feel unwell, or more unhappy and your co-workers might pick up on this and feel inclined to keep their distance,” she said.
Colleague support ‘crucial to nurses returning from sick leave’
“Added to that, they might have been picking up your work while you were away and all this might contribute to them showing you less concern,” noted Dr Eib.
She said: “That can lead to feelings of being less included in workplace discussions, less valued, and a sense that you are not being treated fairly.”
On the other hand, Dr Eib said that if workers felt supported by colleagues this could change their behaviour at work and the way they felt about their organisation.
“It comes down to managers really caring about their employees,” she said. “They need to make sure they understand their workforce and can foster a supportive culture between colleagues – as well as taking steps to ensure procedures and decision-making processes are unbiased, robust and transparent.”