Social Support for Reducing Organizational Stress

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Occupational stress is present in all workplaces, some more than others. This lesson provides practical ways to maximize the direct and indirect social support structure available to employees.

It's a Tough Job

In 2012, a social worker employed by the state of Washington approached a home intending to provide two young boys a supervised birthday visit with their biological father. The children exited the social worker's vehicle and ran to the front door. Their father opened the door, brought the kids inside, and locked the social worker out of the residence. When the social worker returned to her car to call her supervisor, the house exploded. Both boys and their father were killed, and the explosion narrowly missed the social worker. Stressful job? Sure. Perhaps even more so since take-home pay for social workers in the state is often less than $50,000 a year in the extremely high-cost of Seattle living.

This is just one example of a job that carries a high level of inherent stress, but even jobs with less intensity have workers and managers who struggle daily with the impact of a stressful workplace. Some employers provide their employees with a solid social support system, but others have only informal social support available.

Two Primary Social Support Considerations

Broadly, occupational social support is simply assistance that is provided to employees from any one of numerous sources. Social support programs can be formal, such as in a employee assistance program (EAP), but many social support functions are filled by front-line managers and supervisors. Numerous high-quality research studies confirm that the social support employees receive from managers is more effective than almost any other kind of social support in the workplace.

Structural Support

Structural support is one of the two facets of workplace support. The term refers to the overall reach, scope, or size of the social support network available to any particular employee. You can remember this distinction because the words ''structure'' and ''size'' both begin with the letter ''s.'' Although the size of an individual support network is important, research confirms that functional support is more influential and effective at reducing occupational stress.

Structural support refers to the size of a support network for an employee.

Functional Support

Functional support is a facet of a social support network that deals with the quality and quantity of support received. In large part, functional support and structural support are independent of each other. A large social support network does not guarantee effective stress-reduction, nor does it always provide the quality and quantity necessary for an employee to realize a positive benefit. Functional support in the workplace can be further divided into two subtypes known as instrumental support and emotional support.

Types of Functional Support

Instrumental support refers to assistance that is material in nature. In the case of the social worker discussed in the introduction, instrumental support would include things like a colleague taking over a portion of her caseload while she mentally and physically recovers from the event. In a broader sense, instrumental support in the workplace could be covering a coworker's shift or helping him or her complete a task.


Emotional support refers to assistance that is not material in nature. Rather, this kind of support is characterized by encouraging words, a listening ear, and other forms of positive communication. In the example of the social worker, emotional support would be a supervisor who provides encouraging words after the tragedy or who mandates a referral to an EAP.

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