In Brief

Employees who seek social support at work--especially during high-stress moments--may lower their blood pressure, according to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine (Vol. 65, No. 2).

The study's authors--William A. Karlin, PhD, of Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center; Elizabeth Brondolo, PhD, of St. John's University; and Joseph Schwartz, PhD, of the State University of New York--measured the quality of work-related emotional support of 70 New York City traffic enforcement agents and compared it with their blood pressure and heart rate.

New York City traffic enforcement agents offered a good population in which to test this, researchers say, because they report high stress in terms of being insulted, threatened and cursed at by motorists daily.

In the study, participants rated general statements about the quality of emotional support--such as constructive feedback, encouragement and compassion--they receive at work. Researchers used a monitor to assess the heart rate and blood pressure of the officers every 15 minutes while they worked. After each reading, participants wrote down what they were doing--such as writing a ticket, directing a motorist or talking with a co-worker.

Overall, workplace support correlated with lower blood pressure. In particular, men who reported higher levels of support from co-workers in similar positions to their own recorded lower blood pressure, according to the study. Women's blood pressure, on the other hand, seemed to benefit more from support by "immediate" supervisors who have frequent, direct contact with them.

Brondolo says past studies may explain the gender differences. For example, women may benefit more from supervisor relationships because given the "caregiver" role they often play, they may view close social relationships as a source of stress, and relationships with supervisors tend to be less close and reciprocal.

The findings also support a workplace application of the buffer-effect model, which suggests social support during high-stress times protects against high blood pressure and increased heart rate.

"Supervisors, bosses and coworkers need to realize the way they treat each other in the workplace may have a direct influence on blood pressure," says Karlin, who adds that some research shows that employees' productivity increases when they receive emotional support. "When stress levels are high, there is a greater need for support."