Supervisors’ views on job accommodation influenced by key organizational factors

Leadership style, supervisor autonomy among factors linked to greater support for accommodation

Published: August 10, 2014

All too often, whether a person successfully comes back to work after an injury depends on his or her supervisor. The supervisor’s willingness to modify the job can make a difference in whether the injured worker quickly returns to his or her prior level of productivity, or goes back on leave due to deteriorating health. What, then, shapes the willingness of supervisors to offer job accommodation? That was the question Dr. Vicki Kristman, an associate scientist at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), recently explored.

She found that supervisors’ attitudes toward accommodation are influenced in part by how they do their work and in part by factors related to the overall workplace. Namely, supervisors who enjoy more job autonomy are more likely to support work accommodation, as are those with a more empathetic leadership style. At the organizational level, workplaces that tend to be caring also see more supervisors who support accommodation. Having formal policies on disability management is also linked to this kind of support.

These characteristics speak to things like trust and consideration. Workplaces that are trusting give supervisors greater autonomy in how to do their job. They’re also workplaces with a lot of social capital—where there’s a strong sense of being part of a team, says Kristman, who presented her findings at an IWH plenary in May. These are all variables that can be modified. That’s a promising aspect about these findings.

Study on supervisors’ views a first

Conducted jointly with the U.S. Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety (LMRIS), this study is the first to look at the factors linked to supervisor support for work accommodation. It’s based on a survey completed by about 800 supervisors in Canada and the U.S. in a range of industries. However, given that just a quarter of those asked to take part in the study did so, Kristman says the results may be less representative of all workplaces, and more so of high-functioning ones that already had strong policies.

Kristman’s team found a high level of support generally for work accommodation. She used a 21-item scale to ask supervisors which accommodation practices they use most often, from shortening work days to assigning injured workers to temporary jobs. Of those 21, the most common practice was avoiding heavy lifting (see sidebar). The least favoured involved changing worksites or work schedules of a returning worker. Also unpopular were options that involved help from others.

In the study, Kristman asked respondents to react to several vignettes illustrating different types of workers—e.g. those who got hurt at home or who had a history of taking time off. To her surprise, Kristman didn’t see a difference in how participants responded to the different vignettes, but she says that may have been due to limitations in how the vignettes were designed.

Four key factors

The study was set up to test the influence of 12 factors, some that described the injured worker (e.g. job tenure and commitment, attitude of cooperation, specific worker factors such as gender), some the supervisor (e.g. leadership style, beliefs about pain, decision-making authority), and some the workplace (e.g. organization’s health and wellness culture, physical job demands, disability management practices).

Kristman found four characteristics that are linked with stronger supervisor support for work accommodation. These are:

  • autonomy (decision-making authority)—how much freedom and flexibility supervisors have to offer accommodation;
  • considerate leadership style—the extent to which a supervisor demonstrates concern and respect for employees, in contrast to a leadership style that’s more focused on defined roles, formal channels of communication and goals attainment;
  • disability management—the extent to which the organization has formal programs and policies; and
  • workplace social capital—the level of trust and the extent to which people feel they’re “in this together.”

The first two are attributes of the supervisor, and the second two are qualities about the workplace. We found organizational factors might be more important than some demographic and job factors, says Kristman. This helps identify potential interventions to try to influence supervisors’ likelihood to provide accommodation. To see a plenary slidecast on the study, go to Kristman is now working with LMRIS to study the effectiveness of training on supervisors’ support for job accommodation.