On social support networks

Three studies on features of social support, and their link to wellbeing and turnover

Covid19 has cut off or drastically reduced the social support network many relied upon. Life quickly centered around a couple of activities and people.

Over time, the mental health challenges from working from home during the pandemic became evident for those with and without caregiving duties. We experienced different challenges, but in a way, we were all in the same boat. And that shared experience made it hard to find support.

Key points

  • When we lack resources to cope with situations, we reach out to our social support network.

  • If people in our social support network do not have the means to help us (time, money, energy, information), we feel helpless, Our mental health deteriorates.

  • Thinking about how people in our social support network are related to each other helps create a solid and cohesive social support network.

  • Companies should recognize and reward the voluntary support employees provide to each other to reduce turnover intention.

The claim

Social support is about relying on others for help. People can help each other by giving their time, money, or knowledge. These are functional characteristics of social support and describe the nature of the support. For example, I rely on some people for career advice while looking for parenting advice from other people. (Un)consciously we develop an understanding of who is good at providing what type of advice.

Another feature of social support is structural. This describes how those people, who are part of a social support network, interact with each other. The idea behind this feature of social support is that the people you seek out for advice are not living in isolation from each other. For example, if I seek professional advice from my colleagues, it is safe to assume that my colleagues talk with each other and do not work isolated from each other. A support network can be small or large; it can be dense or sparse, people can provide one type of support or multiple types of support.



Being able to rely on others is a strong predictor of mental health. It is not necessary the support that increases people's well-being, but the knowledge or awareness that other people can help. Thinking that there is support is as vital as receiving support. It's like the trust-fall: You know someone will catch you if you fall.


While social support is good for the person who receives it, there is a dark side to those who provide it. Support is provided voluntarily but takes time and effort. Often the act of being able to help is sufficiently rewarding. However, in a work context, altruism has its limits if the voluntary support is not recognized by leadership.

The proof

Lawrence Palinkas and colleagues studied social support in isolated and confined environments: Crew members stationed in Antarctica. These crew members live for several months in a harsh environment experiencing social monotony. This surrounding leads to social tension blowing up into major social conflicts.

While everyone is experiencing the same challenges, this sharing of experience does not provide social support as no one has the necessary resources to help others. Everyone has to cope with the situation. To make matters worse, those who have resources to help, friends and family members back home, can not help due to the distance. This decreases satisfaction with social support, further reducing mental health. Thus, a lack of functional social support decreases mental health.

 David Lee and colleagues have done a more uplifting study. They explored the structural features of social support networks. Their key result is that perceiving a social support network as a cohesive entity instead of multiple isolated people is helpful. By seeing the social support network as a cohesive entity, people see their support as protecting and helping them. Thanks to this perception, people are more likely to go out and ask for help.

Finally, Scott Soltis and colleagues looked at social support at work. This is a more specific situation than in the previous two studies. Here support was limited to asking for or receiving advice. It is essential for employees, especially new ones, to have people in the company they can ask for help. Getting advice from someone with whom there is no direct work relationship is a way of feeling embedded in the company. This has a proven positive impact on retention.

While helping others with whom there is a direct work relationship makes sense and is part of working together (required advice-giving), advising those with no direct working relationship is a voluntary activity (voluntary advice-giving). Of course, helping a colleague, even if there is no immediate work relationship, benefits the company, and in turn, benefits the advice-giver. However, this is little reward. The time and effort spent giving advice to someone are taken people away from their work. For this reason, voluntary advice-giving can have negative consequences on retention. This is because the advice-giver feels that the company does not recognize their time and effort.

What does this mean for you?

During the past year, many people had to live with a smaller support network. In a way, our lives became similar to those crew members in Antarctica. Our environment might not be that harsh, but we couldn't get the same support as before, as everyone had to cope with fewer resources. While you might not be happy with the support you are receiving, look for its positive. And if someone asks you for help, don't be harsh with them. Yes, we all had to learn how to cope with the pandemic, but we don't have to do it alone.

On the contrary, coping with stress is more straightforward with social support. Imagine the support you have as a protective layer. If possible, see connections between the people you reach out for advice. For example, I try to meet a couple of friends regularly. Currently, it's always 1-to-1. We are all (single) mothers, and this is what connects us. I also text with my mother and sister, and friends in other countries. Again, these people may or may not know each other, but I create an imaginary dense support network by drawing a line between people who share a feature.

Remember, your network's size is less important than the density of (imagined) interactions for getting out and seeking help. What matters is the density or how close people are.

Coping with stress is not an individual activity. Managing is only possible if you have social support. This support network provides you with resources to deal with events.

Sources

  • Lee, D. S., Stahl, J. L., & Bayer, J. B. (2020). Social Resources as Cognitive Structures: Thinking about a Dense Support Network Increases Perceived Support. Social Psychology Quarterly83(4), 405–422. https://doi.org/10.1177/0190272520939506

  • Palinkas, L. A., Johnson, J. C., & Boster, J. S. (2004). Social support and depressed mood in isolated and confined environments. Acta Astronautica54(9), 639–647. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0094-5765(03)00236-4

  • Soltis, S. M., Agneessens, F., Sasovova, Z., & Labianca, G. J. (2013). A Social Network Perspective on Turnover Intentions: The Role of Distributive Justice and Social Support. Human Resource Management52(4), 561–584. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.21542

  • Thoits, P. A. (1995). Stress, Coping, and Social Support Processes: Where Are We? What Next? Journal of Health and Social Behavior35, 53. https://doi.org/10.2307/2626957