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Study Co-Authored by ODU Professor Suggests Managers Urge Employees to Leave Work at the Office

By Brendan O'Hallarn

An engineer by training, Andrew Bennett was exposed to a variety of management styles working in industry. Many of those weren't the best.

"Sometimes the boss was just the person who had been there the longest," Bennett said. "It wasn't that they had any desire to manage their employees or had the training to do so."

Exploring dysfunctional workplaces is part of why Bennett returned to school to earn a doctorate. Now an assistant professor of management in Old Dominion University's Strome College of Business, Bennett co-wrote a new study about how supervisors can help employees recover from work-related stress.

"It's important to recognize that supervisors play a key role in helping employees manage work demands even when employees aren't physically at work," said Bennett, who is in his first semester at Old Dominion.

One of the things managers can do, he said, is to encourage employees to leave work at the office.

The study, "Better Together? Examining Profiles of Employee Recovery Experiences," was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Co-written by Allison Gabriel of the University of Arizona, Charles Calderwood of Virginia Commonwealth University, Jason Dahling of the College of New Jersey and John Trougakos of the University of Toronto Scarborough, the study examined the multiple strategies with which employees can recover from the strain of work.

The study, Bennett said, was the first to examine what supervisors can do to help, or hurt, employees' recovery.

"We found that it's very important that employees utilize a combination of strategies to recover from work demands each evening. We called these combinations 'profiles of recovery experiences,'" Bennett said.

To examine the role that supervisors play in the recovery process, Bennett and the research team asked 401 full-time employees from a large North American university to provide ratings of five recovery experiences: psychological detachment (mentally disconnecting from work), relaxation (taking time for leisure), mastery (taking time to learn new things), control (having autonomy in how time is spent after work) and problem-solving pondering (thinking about future work events).

Their supervisors then rated how supportive they were of employee recovery at home - something the team coined "supervisor support for recovery" - as well as the quality of the relationship they had with the employee, which is known as "leader-member exchange."

The study found that when supervisors supported recovery, employees were more likely to get the decompression time they needed and less likely to continue thinking about work at home. As a result, the employees felt less emotionally exhausted and experienced fewer health complaints, such as backaches, headaches and difficulty sleeping.

The most surprising finding of the study is that when supervisors and employees shared high-quality working relationships, recovery at home tended to be more difficult.

The employees displayed a sense of loyalty to their supervisor and, as a result, spent more time thinking about work at home and less time recovering. This resulted in more exhaustion and negative health outcomes, the authors found.

"It's important to have a good, supportive relationship with your supervisor," Bennett said. "But employees who have that kind of relationship may feel an obligation to bring work home in order to not let their supervisor down."

The authors suggest a better strategy for managers is to insist that employees try to leave work at the office as much as possible and focus their non-working hours on personal recovery.

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