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Increasing workloads are associated with significant costs for individuals, their employing organizations and society at large. In their article published in Human Resource Management, Professor Kerstin Alfes and her co-authors thus examined the buffering effect of support climates in the relationship between role overload and employee subjective health, and showed that the team’s cohesiveness matters the most. Although their findings partly confirm intuitive beliefs, they could help HR practitioners reduce job demands’ negative effect on employee health.

A recent study estimated that healthcare costs resulting from workplace stressors in the United States constitute more than $180 billion a year, not including indirect costs such as reduced employee productivity, absenteeism, and worker compensation expenses. Likewise, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) determined that in the United Kingdom, mental health costs amount to £70 billion annually, including lost productivity, social benefits and health care. For the OECD, which holds tackling mental ill-health as ”a key issue for labour market and social policies”, ill-health represents a cost of 3.6% of GDP on average in European countries. Even in Switzerland, where the authors’ study was carried out, it represents roughly 3.2% of the country's GDP!
“Given the costs associated with ill-health for both employees and organizations, an examination of factors that mitigate the negative outcomes of physical and psychological ill-health is of central interest to human resources (HR) scholars and practitioners alike”, wrote ESCP’s Organisation and Human Resource Management Chairholder and Academic Director of the MBA in International Management (Berlin campus), Kerstin Alfes, Trinity College Dublin’s Amanda D. Shantz and University of Bern’s Adrian Ritz. “Additionally, the so-called support-buffering hypothesis, which suggests that the support employees receive at work buffers the negative impact of work stressors on employee health, has received mixed empirical support”.


This is why they looked at the potential buffering role of support through the hierarchical linear modelling of data from 2,288 employees nested in a Swiss state administration’s 132 workgroups. They examined three sources of support - from the organization, leader and team - that employees may draw from in order to reduce the negative effect of a specific job demand: role overload. “Unlike most prior research, we focused on these sources of support at the group level of analysis to determine the relative effectiveness of organizational support climate, leadership climate, and team climate as moderators of the role overload-subjective health relationship,” they explain.
By simultaneously exploring individual and group-level sources of support and by demonstrating that different sources of support influence employee health in different ways, their paper thus provides a nuanced test of the support-buffering hypothesis. “Practically, our research suggests that HR practitioners should work through teams to ensure high levels of employee well‐being.”

Team climate buffers the negative outcomes of role overload

Their research shows that organizations need to be aware that increased work effort destabilizes employees’ work context, leading to ill health. And that to reduce the effect of role overload, it is important to ensure that teams have a climate of cohesiveness. “A supportive team climate shields employees from the deleterious effect of role overload, even after controlling for individual‐level team cohesiveness, leader–member relations, and organizational support,” they add. “Managers and HR professionals need to invest in team development to foster a supportive and trustful atmosphere within teams.” To do so, they point to existing solutions but also make their own recommendations: “They can also increase team cohesiveness by facilitating team members’ interpersonal attraction to one another, for example, by planning social interactions among team members (e.g., joint coffee breaks, social events) and inviting guest speakers to give lunch talks or yoga classes to workgroups, which employees can attend to release stress. Ensuring that each member is integrated in the workgroup through regular interaction may increase feelings of being supported.”