According to a new study, working for an unsupportive supervisor can actually increase happiness—if you channel your frustrations the right way.
Reporting to a boss who doesn’t appreciate your work can be a major drain on motivation and workplace morale. But it doesn’t have to be: According to a new study, low levels of support from a supervisor can be a motivating factor for people to make positive changes happen—and may actually increase happiness in the end.
That may be good news for anyone who’s frustrated by a lack of leadership in their current job. But researchers say employees still need to be proactive in order to get these mood-boosting benefits.
The new research, published in the journal Work & Stress, included three studies on a total of 500 employees in Portugal and the United States. The participants, who worked in a variety of fields, completed questionnaires to determine three basic measures: how “used up” they felt at the end of every workday (emotional exhaustion), how well they felt their leader supported their needs (perceived supervisor support), and how satisfied they were with their lives in general (happiness).
Researchers found that when employees thought that their bosses understood and appreciated their work, they were less likely to experience emotional exhaustion. When emotional exhaustion did occur, however, those who perceived low supervisor support were more likely to develop an “action plan” and seek out advice and support from others—activities that directly influenced their levels of happiness.
Lead author Carlos Ferreira Peralta, Ph.D., a lecturer in organizational behavior at the University of East Anglia, says the research shows that having a supportive supervisor can actually be a double-edged sword, and that emotionally exhausting experiences at work can have a silver lining. The study is thought to be one of the first to investigate how people can overcome the negative relationship between stressful work situations and mood.
The research also indicates, says Ferreira Peralta, that how people react to emotional exhaustion—whether they actively search for solutions to their problems and connections with others—appears to be more important than their relationship with their boss.
“Our findings suggest that the activities people engage in have a key role in building happiness from an internally stressful experience,” Ferreira Peralta told RealSimple.com via email. “According to our research, dealing with emotional exhaustion with an effective strategy and continued effort can lead to enhanced happiness.”
Ferreira Peralta does point out, however, that low levels of perceived supervisor support aren’t necessarily the same thing as having a bad boss. In fact, the research suggests there are times when it might be beneficial for managers to be more hands-off with their employees.
“Providing support may prevent the emergence of emotional exhaustion in employees,” Ferreira Peralta says. “However, when an employee is experiencing emotional exhaustion it might be useful to just provide support when and if requested. Otherwise, the employee may not engage or delay the engagement in coping activities that can enhance their happiness.”
That can be counterintuitive, he adds, because caring employers may be tempted to increase their levels of help and encouragement during particularly tough times. Ideally, he says, training programs could help supervisors differentiate between situations in which they should offer support versus those in which they should take a step back.
Then, of course, there are bosses that truly don’t have their employees’ best interests at heart. If yours is one of those, try not to let him or her bring you down. Instead, take a cue from this study—and use that lack of support as motivation to find something better.