If a coworker or employee is struggling, should you offer to help?

Whether it’s help on the job or just a shoulder to cry on, new research has found that either kind of support does roughly the same thing.

Researchers at San Francisco State University also found that sometimes it’s best not to address the situation at all.

“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 University along with Associate Professor of Psychology Kevin Eschleman.

For their study, Mathieu and Eschleman pulled together information from 142 studies, then translated them into the same scientific terms so they could be compared and statistically analyzed in one batch.

The researchers used a variety of measurements, from job satisfaction to job performance and even stressors like “role overload” — when an employee’s workload is too large to handle.

Offering job-related support — such as new equipment or career counseling — turned out to perform roughly the same role as providing emotional support, like listening to a coworker’s problems, the researchers discovered.

They also discovered that simply making support available is often better than overtly discussing it. Extending a helping hand was just as likely to make the situation worse as improve it, while simply making job resources available had a more consistently positive effect.

“That finding might be because not all support is good support,” Mathieu explained. For instance, reaching out to offer help to a coworker could end up insulting them, he said.

The study also found that support coming from a superior has a bigger impact than when it comes from a coworker.

An important next step will be to figure out just when support ends up falling flat and when it can help a coworker succeed, according to the researchers.

For now, Mathieu’s message for employers is to take the time to think about whether offering a hand would be helpful at all.

“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 was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Source: San Francisco State University