Unhelpful Help Is Detrimental Social Support

Hands holding puzzle pieces social support

Two years ago and again last week I blogged about research I’ve done with Cheryl Gray about her new concept of workplace unhelpful help—actions people take intended to help others that winds up to be detrimental. We were excited to see a new paper by Ian Hughes, Lindsey Freier and Clare Barratt published in Occupational Health Science that replicated unhelpful help is detrimental social support. They also went farther in showing that unhelpful help relates to things we did not study.

What Is Unhelpful Help?

Unhelpful help are actions taken by colleagues or supervisors that are intended to be helpful but are anything but. Rather than making someone feel supported, unhelpful help can be frustrating and undermine confidence in those who receive it. Some forms of unhelpful help include:

  • Taking over someone’s task without asking.
  • Providing feedback that is perceived as an attack.
  • Discounting someone’s feelings when something bad happens.
  • Providing help that makes thing worse, for example, violates policy and gets the person in trouble.

Unhelpful Help Is Detrimental Social Support

In our original research we found that receiving unhelpful support can be worse than receiving no help at all. Providing helpful help in an unhelpful way can be stressful to those who receive it. We found, for example, that it related to burnout, negative emotions, and physical health symptoms associated with stress (e.g., digestive upset and headaches). At the same time, results with helpful help were opposite—lower burnout, less frustration at work, and fewer symptoms.

The Hughes team conducted two studies with online panels (MTurk) that provided a broad cross-section of workers. Consistent with what we found, their samples showed a relationship of unhelpful help with burnout and negative emotions, but they went farther. They also found that those who received unhelpful help were more likely to misbehave at work and engage in counterproductive work behavior or CWB, for example, being nasty to others, doing work incorrectly on purpose, and avoiding work. Having an independent team replicate our original work and going farther is important because published scientific findings can be wrong for a variety of reasons. Independent replication suggests that the original findings were not errors or flukes.

Provide Helpful Help to Support Your Colleagues

Social support is important in helping people not only cope with stress, but in day-to-day performance of the job. But there is a right way and wrong way to help others. A few tips include.

  • Do not assume someone needs help without asking. Offering help can be a way to show support, even if the person declines the offer.
  • Provide feedback to others, but do so in a constructive way, focusing on how to improve in the future rather than on what the person did wrong in the past.
  • Lend an ear to someone who is having a difficult time but avoid discounting their feelings by telling them to look on the bright side. Often people just want someone to listen to them, not try to solve their problem.
  • Keep your promises. If you offer to do something for someone, be sure to carry through.

It was encouraging to see Hughes and colleagues replicate our work and find that unhelpful help relates to things we have not explored. This adds to the growing literature showing that all forms of help are not effective. This underscores the need for leaders and others to consider how they provide support so they can turn unhelpful help into helpful help at work and beyond.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

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