We have all had instances when we tried to help someone, but our help wound up to be not really helpful or was unwanted. In the workplace it is the job of supervisors to provide help to subordinates when needed, but how is a supervisor to know when to step in and when to stand back? Some recent research by Cheryl Gray, Paul Spector, Kayla Lacey, Briana Young, Scott Jacobsen and Morgan Taylor, published in Work & Stress might have some answers. This research explored when helping is not helping. (Cheryl talks about this research at the 2019 Work, Stress and Health conference in Philadelphia.)
Social Support at Work
All people need social support from time to time, both on the job and at home. There are two main types that we need. First, we need help to perform work tasks. We might need someone to help us carry a heavy object, or to look over something we have done to be sure there isn’t a mistake. Second, there are times when we need a sympathetic ear to listen to a work problem and perhaps offer advice. Both types of support are important, not only in helping to get things done, but in coping with the day to day stress of work. In fact having support at work often means having less stress. In other words, support can help buffer the impact on stressful events on people’s well-being. However, some studies have found the reverse. Sometimes having social support can make dealing with stress more difficult rather than less.
When Helping Is Not Helping
Cheryl Gray’s study looked into the question of when helping is not helping by asking 116 employees to describe a time when they received unhelpful support from someone at work. The responses were fit into categories including:
- Conflicting support: When advice from different people was incompatible.
- Critical support: When the recipient feels attacked or put down.
- Imposing support: When the support is unwanted by the recipient.
- Impractical support: When the recipient is given bad advice, for example, told to do something that violates company policy.
- Uncomforting support: Support that makes the person feel worse about a situation.
Impact of Unhelpful Help
In a second study Gray’s team asked 496 nurses about how often they received unhelpful help using a new scale they developed, and about their stress at work. They found that nurses who experienced high levels of unhelpful support were likely to feel overloaded, burned out, dissatisfied and frustrated. In other words, receiving unhelpful help was stressful, and had the opposite effect of what was intended.
How to Avoid When Helping Is Not Helping
It should not be assumed that helping is always a positive thing. Forcing help on someone who doesn’t want it, or providing the wrong kind of help can make things worse rather than better. This means that we all need to think about how to best provide help, and sometimes not providing it might be the most helpful thing we can do. The next time you want to help someone, ask yourself these three questions.
- Is the help wanted? Sometimes just by offering help we can make the person feel inadequate or insulted. It can suggest that we do not believe the person can do the task himself or herself.
- Am I coming across as critical? Help should be provided in a neutral and nonjudgmental way. If you tell people that they need help because they are struggling, they might feel attacked if it is not done diplomatically.
- Am I sure that I am giving good advice? If you suggest that something should be done in a certain way, be sure that it is feasible and does not conflict with company policy. Is the advice you are giving the same as anyone else might give, or is this just your own opinion? This can be particularly important with new employees who might assume advice coming from an experienced colleague or supervisor is sound.
Providing help and support is an important skill, particularly for managers whose job it is to help employees be successful. It is too often assumed that people naturally know how to provide good help, and there are few resources available to help develop the skill. The first step is to raise awareness that help is not always helpful so that we can all pay more attention to how and when we provide help to others.