During the mid-1970s public health practitioners, and in particular, epidemiologists “discovered” the concept of social support in their studies of causal relationships between stress, mortality and morbidity (Cassel 1974; Cobb 1976). In the past decade there has been an explosion in the literature relating the concept of social support to work-related stressors. By contrast, in psychology, social support as a concept had already been well integrated into clinical practice. Rogers’ (1942) client-centred therapy of unconditional positive regard is fundamentally a social support approach. Lindeman’s (1944) pioneering work on grief management identified the critical role of support in moderating the crisis of death loss. Caplin’s (1964) model of preventive community psychiatry (1964) elaborated on the importance of community and support groups.
Cassel (1976) adapted the concept of social support into public health theory as a way of explaining the differences in diseases that were thought to be stress-related. He was interested in understanding why some individuals appeared to be more resistant to stress than others. The idea of social support as a factor in disease causation was reasonable since, he noted, both people and animals who experienced stress in the company of “significant others” seemed to suffer fewer adverse consequences than those who were isolated. Cassel proposed that social support could act as a protective factor buffering an individual from the effects of stress.
Cobb (1976) expanded on the concept by noting that the mere presence of another person is not social support. He suggested that an exchange of “information” was needed. He established three categories for this exchange:
- information leading the person to the belief that one is loved or cared for (emotional support)
- information leading to the belief that one is esteemed and valued (esteem support)
- information leading to the belief that one belongs to a network of mutual obligations and communication.
Cobb reported that those experiencing severe events without such social support were ten times more likely to come to be depressed and concluded that somehow intimate relations, or social support, was protective of the effects of stress reactions. He also proposed that social support operates throughout one’s life span, encompassing various life events such as unemployment, severe illness and bereavement. Cobb pointed out the great diversity of studies, samples, methods and outcomes as convincing evidence that social support is a common factor in modifying stress, but is, in itself, not a panacea for avoiding its effects.
According to Cobb, social support increases coping ability (environmental manipulation) and facilitates adaptation (self-change to improve the person-environment fit). He cautioned, however, that most research was focused on acute stressors and did not permit generalizations of the protective nature of social support for coping with the effects of chronic stressors or traumatic stress.
Over the intervening years since the publication of these seminal works, investigators have moved away from considering social support as a unitary concept, and have attempted to understand the components of social stress and social support.
Hirsh (1980) describes five possible elements of social support:
- emotional support: care, comfort, love, affection, sympathy
- encouragement: praise, compliments; the extent to which one feels inspired by the supporter to feel courage, hope or to prevail
- advice: useful information to solve problems; the extent to which one feels informed
- companionship: time spent with supporter; the extent to which one does not feel alone
- tangible aid: practical resources, such as money or aid with chores; the extent to which one feels relieved of burdens. Another framework is used by House (1981), to discuss social support in the context of work-related stress:
- emotional: empathy, caring, love, trust, esteem or demonstrations of concern
- appraisal: information relevant to self-evaluation, feedback from others useful in self-affirmation
- informational: suggestions, advice or information useful in problem-solving
- instrumental: direct aid in the form of money, time or labour.
House felt that emotional support was the most important form of social support. In the workplace, the supportiveness of the supervisor was the most important element, followed by co-worker support. The structure and organization of the enterprise, as well as the specific jobs within it, could either enhance or inhibit potential for support. House found that greater task specialization and fragmentation of work leads to more isolated work roles and to decreased opportunities for support.
Pines’ (1983) study of burnout, which is a phenomenon discussed separately in this chapter, found that the availability of social support at work is negatively correlated with burnout. He identifies six different relevant aspects of social support which modify the burnout response. These include listening, encouragement, giving advice and, providing companionship and tangible aid.
As one may gather from the foregoing discussion in which the models proposed by several researchers have been described, while the field has attempted to specify the concept of social support, there is no clear consensus on the precise elements of the concept, although considerable overlap between models is evident.
Interaction between Stress and Social Support
Although the literature on stress and social support is quite extensive, there is still considerable debate as to the mechanisms by which stress and social support interact. A long-standing question is whether social support has a direct or indirect effect on health.
Main effect/Direct effect
Social support can have a direct or main effect by serving as a barrier to the effects of the stressor. A social support network may provide needed information or needed feedback in order to overcome the stressor. It may provide a person with the resources he or she needs to minimize the stress. An individual’s self-perception may also be influenced by group membership so as to provide self-confidence, a sense of mastery and skill and hence thereby a sense of control over the environment. This is relevant to Bandura’s (1986) theories of personal control as the mediator of stress effects. There appears to be a minimum threshold level of social contact required for good health, and increases in social support above the minimum are less important. If one considers social support as having a direct—or main—effect, then one can create an index by which to measure it (Cohen and Syme 1985; Gottlieb 1983).
Cohen and Syme (1985), however, also suggest that an alternative explanation to social support acting as a main effect is that it is the isolation, or lack of social support, which causes the ill health rather than the social support itself promoting better health. This is an unresolved issue. Gottlieb also raises the issue of what happens when the stress results in the loss of the social network itself, such as might occur during disasters, major accidents or loss of work. This effect has not yet been quantified.
The buffering hypothesis is that social support intervenes between the stressor and the stress response to reduce its effects. Buffering could change one’s perception of the stressor, thus diminishing its potency, or it could increases one’s coping skills. Social support from others may provide tangible aid in a crisis, or it may lead to suggestions that facilitate adaptive responses. Finally, social support may be the stress-modifying effect which calms the neuroendocrine system so that the person may be less reactive to the stressor.
Pines (1983) notes that the relevant aspect of social support may be in the sharing of a social reality. Gottlieb proposes that social support could offset self-recrimination and dispel notions that the individual is him or herself responsible for the problems. Interaction with a social support system can encourage the venting of fears and can assist re-establishing a meaningful social identity.
Additional Theoretical Issues
Research thus far has tended to treat social support as a static, given factor. While the issue of its change over time has been raised, little data exist on the time course of social support (Gottlieb 1983; Cohen and Syme 1985). Social support is, of course, fluid, just as the stressors that it affects. It varies as the individual passes through the stages of life. It can also change over the short-term experience of a particular stressful event (Wilcox 1981).
Such variability probably means that social support fulfils different functions during different developmental stages or during different phases of a crisis. For example at the onset of a crisis, informational support may be more essential than tangible aid. The source of support, its density and the length of time it is operative will also be in flux. The reciprocal relationship between stress and social support must be recognized. Some stressors themselves have a direct impact on available support. Death of a spouse, for example, usually reduces the extent of the network and may have serious consequences for the survivor (Goldberg et al. 1985).
Social support is not a magic bullet that reduces the impact of stress. Under certain conditions it may exacerbate or be the cause of stress. Wilcox (1981) noted that those with a denser kin network had more difficulties adjusting to divorce because their families were less likely to accept divorce as a solution to marital problems. The literature on addiction and family violence also shows possible severe negative effects of social networks. Indeed, as Pines and Aronson (1981) point out, much of professional mental health interventions are devoted to undoing destructive relationships, and to teaching interpersonal skills and to assisting people to recover from social rejection.
There are a large number of studies employing a variety of measures of the functional content of social support. These measures have a wide range of reliability and construct validity. Another methodological problem is that these analyses depend largely on the self-reports of those being studied. The responses will therefore of necessity be subjective and will cause one to wonder whether it is the actual event or level of social support that is important or whether it is the individual’s perception of support and outcomes that is more critical. If it is the perception that is critical, then it may be that some other, third variable, such as personality type, is affecting both stress and social support (Turner 1983). For example, a third factor, such as age or socio-economic status, may influence change in both social support and outcome, according to Dooley (1985). Solomon (1986) provides some evidence for this idea with a study of women who have been forced by financial constraints into involuntary interdependence on friends and kin. She found that such women opt out of these relationships as quickly as they are financially able to do so.
Thoits (1982) raises concerns about reverse causation. It may be, she points out, that certain disorders chase away friends and lead to loss of support. Studies by Peters-Golden (1982) and Maher (1982) on cancer victims and social support appear to be consistent with this proposition.
Social Support and Work Stress
Studies on the relationship between social support and work stress indicate that successful coping is related to the effective use of support systems (Cohen and Ahearn 1980). Successful coping activities have emphasized the use of both formal and informal social support in dealing with work stress. Laid-off workers, for example, are advised to actively seek support to provide informational, emotional and tangible support. There have been relatively few evaluations of the effectiveness of such interventions. It appears, however, that formal support is only effective in the short term and informal systems are necessary for longer-term coping. Attempts to provide institutional formal social support can create negative outcomes, since the anger and rage about layoff or bankruptcy, for example, may be displaced to those who provide the social support. Prolonged reliance on social support may create a sense of dependency and lowered self- esteem.
In some occupations, such as seafarers, fire-fighters or staff in remote locations such as on oil rigs, there is a consistent, long-term, highly defined social network which can be compared to a family or kin system. Given the necessity for small work groups and joint efforts, it is natural that a strong sense of social cohesion and support develops among workers. The sometimes hazardous nature of the work requires that workers develop mutual respect, trust and confidence. Strong bonds and interdependence are created when people are dependent on each other for their survival and well-being.
Further research on the nature of social support during routine periods, as well as downsizing or major organizational change, is necessary to further define this factor. For example, when an employee is promoted to a supervisory position, he or she normally must distance him or herself from the other members of the work group. Does this make a difference in the day-to-day levels of social support he or she receives or requires? Does the source of support shift to other supervisors or to the family or somewhere else? Do those in positions of responsibility or authority experience different work stressors? Do these individuals require different types, sources or functions of social support?
If the target of the group-based interventions is also changing the functions of social support or the nature of the network, does this provide a preventive effect in future stressful events?
What will be the effect of growing numbers of women in these occupations? Does their presence change the nature and functions of support for all or does each sex require different levels or types of support?
The workplace presents a unique opportunity to study the intricate web of social support. As a closed subculture, it provides a natural experimental setting for research into the role of social support, social networks and their interrelationships with acute, cumulative and traumatic stress.