Roderick Macleod, BSc, University of Ottawa; Jennifer K. Dimoff, Ph.D., University of Ottawa; E. Kevin Kelloway, Ph.D., Saint Mary’s U; Stephanie L. Gilbert, Ph.D., Cape Breton U; Jane Mullen, Ph.D., Mount Allison U; Tabatha Thibault, MSc, Saint Mary?s U; Rachael Jones-Chick, BSc, Saint Mary’s U; Vanessa Myers, BSc, Saint Mary’s U; Jacqueline Shaw, BSc, Saint Mary’s U

This study explores the benefits of supportive supervision as it pertains to employees’ emotional responses to potentially stressful events. Using extant literature on large-scale traumatic events, extraorganizational stressors, and the Social Support Buffering Hypothesis (Cohen & Wills, 1985), this study explores the effect of supervisor support on the relationship between employees’ fear of COVID-19 and their mental health. Specifically, this study hypothesizes that there will be a simple moderation relationship, whereby supervisor support affects the relationship between employee fear and mental health such that the negative relationship between fear and mental health will be weaker among employees who report higher supervisor support compared to employees who report lower supervisor support

The direct effects of traumatic extraorganizational stressors (i.e., environmental factors occurring outside of the organization that have deleterious effects on employees and organizational outcomes involving extreme stress, fear, or aversion; Hendrix, et al., 1994, Norris, 1992) have been well-documented in studies of natural disasters and are associated with a variety of employee outcomes, such as reduced job satisfaction, lower work engagement, higher turnover intentions, heightened absenteeism, and increased psychological strain (Biggs et al., 2014; Byron & Peterson, 2002; Hochwarter et al., 2008). These stressors share an ability to elicit fear in individuals. While fear can be exceptionally adaptive, excessive activation of the fear response may result in various anxiety disorders and diminished mental health (Rosen & Schulkin, 1998). With fear, anxiety, and “coronaphobia” being prominent components of the COVID-19 pandemic (Arora, et al., 2020; Fitzpatrick, et al. 2020), it is important to study the potentially harmful effects of fear on employees’ mental health while simultaneously investigating ways in which supervisors might work to mitigate the consequences of such reductions in mental health. Informed by the Social Support Buffering Hypothesis (Cohen & Wills, 1985), this study posits that supportive supervision may attenuate the link between potentially stressful events and diminished mental health.

This study uses survey data from approximately 1000 Canadian and American employees responding to the same 20-minute questionnaire at three time points over eight weeks. Participants were recruited using Qualtrics and were required to be 18 years of age or older, fluent in English, currently employed, and working at least 20 hours per week to participate. Once consent was obtained, participants responded to items pertaining to inclusion criteria, study measures, and demographics. Study measures included an 8-item Fear Scale (adapted from Champion et al., 2004) to measure COVID-19 Fear, supervisor support was measured using the 4-item Perceived Supervisor Support Scale (Eisenberger, Huntington, Hutchinson, & Sowa 1986) and 3 items derived from Yoon and Lim (1999), and the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ; Banks et al., 1980) was used to assess mental health. In order to analyze the hypothesized moderation relationship, I plan to conduct hierarchical multiple regression analyses using the PROCESS macro (Hayes, 2013) through SPSS.

Data has been collected and will be analyzed in summer 2021. Data will be cleaned and undergo a series of hierarchical multiple regression analyses using the PROCESS macro (Hayes, 2013) through SPSS.

This paper contributes to the leadership and mental health literatures in three ways. First, by investigating the extent to which emotional reactions, such as fear, can manifest as poor mental health, this study underscores an important link between extraorganizational stressors and organizational outcomes. Further, in studying the effect of supervisor support in buffering the relationship between COVID-19 related fear and employee mental health, this study identifies possible strategies to protect employee health during future traumatic extraorganizational stressors and highlights the ability of leaders to promote employee mental health. Third, this study adds to the literature on traumatic extraorganizational stressors – a relatively unexplored source of strain in the organizational behavior and human resource literatures. Although this study has several strengths, including a relatively large sample size including participants from Canada and the United States, there are limitations to note. Without an item indicating employees’ work from home status, employee risk of exposure to COVID-19 may vary, potentially confounding results. Further, as a result of the timing of the data collection early on in the pandemic, the chronic effects of COVID-19 are not fully captured. Ultimately, this paper adds to the growing literature regarding COVID-19’s impact on the workforce and highlights the potentially pivotal role of leaders during times of significant uncertainty or trauma.

The results from this study can be used to help bolster organizational preparedness for future traumatic events or other extraorganizational stressors, lending insight into the supportive leadership behaviors that leaders can enact to best protect employee health during times of turmoil. Future research should investigate job-specific fears and demands, how they impact additional organizational outcomes, and additional sources of support at work. Organizational culture, norms, and expectations may all impact how employees respond to potentially traumatic events and the resulting implications for the organization.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Comprehensive Approaches to Healthy Work Design and Well-Being, COVID-19, Empirical study, Organization- and Job-Level Environments and Practices, Social and Organizational Environment, Total Worker Health