Offering a Helping Hand at Work Might Backfire

By: Marie Donlon

Is it better to offer a struggling coworker or employee a helping hand on the job or merely a “shoulder to cry on”? The answer to that question, according to a San Francisco State University-led study, is “it depends.”

"We found it's half and half. Sometimes offering support makes things worse, sometimes it makes it better," said Michael Mathieu, who led the study as a psychology graduate student at San Francisco State along with associate professor of psychology Kevin Eschleman.

Instead of conducting their own experiments, Mathieu and Eschleman amassed data from scientific literature on the subject, and using that information, determined what factors would be measured to determine which form of support would be most appropriate. Those measures included everything from job satisfaction and job performance to job stress.

Based on that data, researchers determined that offering struggling employees job-related assistance in the form of new equipment or career counseling had virtually the same impact as offering emotional support such as listening to their problems.

Another finding, according to the team was that simply offering support proved better than actually discussing an issue. For instance, offering a helping hand was equally as likely to worsen a situation as it was to improve it. However, offers of actual support in the form of new equipment was almost always well-received.

“That finding might be because not all support is good support," Mathieu explained. For instance, offering to help a coworker might end up insulting him or her.

Mathieu recommends that employers having to navigate this minefield take time before making an offer of help.

"Before providing support, think about whether it's needed and whether it's wanted," he said. "If it's not, maybe step back and don't provide that."

The study appears in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.