2.2.1. The Linear Relationship between Social Support and Work Engagement
The job demands-resources model is a theoretical model for work engagement [3
] in which the incentive process originates from work resources coupled with incentive potential. Thus, all the physical and psychological, social and organizational, tangible and intangible work-related resources, such as social support, work autonomy, and performance feedback [25
], can be defined as work resources [25
]. These resources can assist employees in achieving their job goals, responding to job demands, and staying motivated for learning and development, thereby increasing employee engagement [2
]. Among others, social support seeks to increase the well-being of employees under the rule of reciprocity between organizations and employees [28
], establishing itself as the most representative work resource in stimulating work engagement [29
]. According to the job demands-resources model, social support in the workplace refers to the physical, affective, informational, and instrumental assistance that employees receive from the workplace [30
], ranging from tangible support, such as experience imparting and guidance on business skills, assistance in solving difficulties, or task sharing, to intangible support, such as spiritual comfort and encouragement, etc. [25
]. According to the existing research, the incentive function of social support is signified by both internal and external incentives [8
]. In terms of external incentives, social support can help employees achieve higher job goals and performance [8
]. In terms of internal incentives, on the one hand, social support enables individuals to be confident in and qualified for their work, thereby generating strong internal incentives and a greater sense of control and achievement at work [3
]; on the other hand, social support represents loads of input of social emotions, involving the care and concern for individuals. This can meet the basic needs for individuals’ belonging, allowing them to devote more emotional resources to their work [32
]. Therefore, the availability of resources serves to reshape employees’ perception and motivation [33
], and it also requires the mobilization of considerable resources in order to respond to job demands. At this juncture, more social support, as an important work resource, is “better” for real. Simply, social support positively predicts employee engagement, which has been established by a large quantity of previous empirical findings [34
In general, social support is regarded as a representative variable of work resources. Efforts have been made to uphold a “single-sided” research perspective from which social support positively influences work engagement. Evidently, it fails to provide the whole picture of the relationship between social support and work engagement. Whether or not social support continues to maintain its incentive function in the case of excessive provision has not been theoretically verified. The job demands-resources model addresses how resource investment comes into effect in alleviating pressure damage and stimulating employee motivation when there is a lack of work resources and an excess of work demands. However, whether these two processes still occur when there is no shortage of work resources needs to be further explored, as in the present study.
2.2.2. The Curve Relationship between Social Support and Work Engagement
Some scholars have begun to question the traditional view that “social support must generate incentives for employees” and suggest that social support is damaging in a sense. Studies found that immoderate support, such as task-related assistance, may make employees feel less competitive and threatened with self-esteem damage [37
]; in addition, employees may assume that the support received is established and does not generate in themselves a sense of obligation to return, so that their voice behavior cannot be mobilized [39
]. Besides, as a work resource featuring reciprocity, social support will also bring reward pressure to employees, including the extra-role work pressure [40
]. However, these studies predominantly argued from the recipients’ point of view that disruptive or negative reactions are caused by the different understandings of employees about social support, including attribution methods, stress resistance, and the value measurement of social exchange, failing to explore it from the suppliers’ viewpoint, in that what is held accountable is the “quantity” of social support that is supposed to be consistent with the psychological needs of employees. In other words, those studies are still built on the assumption that “resources must meet the needs of employees” and neglect the fact that an excessive resource supply will induce damage to the psychological needs of employees, making it hard to explain that social support may produce negative effects that go against the needs of employees.
The incentive effect of social support is based on the marriage between environmental supply (social support) and individual needs. The fulfillment of individual needs affects individual attitudes and behaviors [41
]. Therefore, the inflection point at which social support ceases to motivate employees’ work engagement can be spotted at the moment when social support just meets individual needs. From the perspective of the fulfillment of employee needs, self-determination theory reveals the process in which the external resources are internalized into the internal motivation of employees, and serves to explain the curve effect of the relationship between social support and work engagement in the study. On the one hand, social support boosts employees’ willingness in their endeavors to accomplish work tasks by fostering a resourceful work environment [43
]. For example, greater social support helps employees to complete their tasks, resulting in more qualified employees for the job, and accordingly, greater empowerment is given to employees. Thus, greater fulfillment of employees’ needs for competence and autonomy can be attained [44
]. On the other hand, social support comprises not only the physical goods (instrumental functions) other individuals in the organization provide to employees but also the emotional characteristics of the relationships among the parties in the workplace (affective function) [44
]. For example, social support delivers a signal of benign exchange between the two parties, thus meeting employees’ needs for relatedness and belonging [26
]. Therefore, the key to effective incentives of social support lies in the matching between its supply and the needs of its recipients, involving both physical and affective aspects.
However, it does not mean that more social support is always better. Instead, extravagant social support will inevitably break the “supply–demand” balance. According to self-determination theory, employee motivation originates from the fulfillment of three basic needs: Autonomy, competence, and relatedness [19
]. When the social environment restricts or even undermines the fulfillment of these basic needs of employees, their work engagement is immediately reduced [44
First, with regard to autonomy, social support in excess puts employees in a state where they are forced to rely on organizations, which limits employees’ freedom of choice in their work tasks. This negative perception of “being bound” is even stronger when social support is imposed, because it is hard or even impossible for employees to reject such support. For instance, the premise that individuals can voluntarily accept help from others is that the support and guidance are provided in an appropriate manner. Once the help comes in excess, individuals will feel as though they are “forced” to be dependent, and their initiative needs will be impaired [44
]. Furthermore, the continuous increase of resources requires employees’ obligations or labor of “equal value”; as a result, the multi-role responsibilities and the passive binding of individual–collective interests undoubtedly impose limits on employees’ work autonomy. The immediate consequence of these negative perceptions is employees’ internal drive being hit [32
], that is, for employees with excessive social support, the fulfillment of their initiative needs is suppressed so that they are no longer willing to increase their work engagement, giving birth to the “too-much-of-a-good-thing” effect of resources.
Second, employees’ judgement about social support comes with self-directed feedback and awareness [43
], such as the perception that whether they are competent enough for such a resource supply. Excessive social support delivers signals that those being supported are not qualified for the job and need extra help, thereby limiting or even undermining the fulfillment of their needs for competence, a typical manifestation of which is the damage to self-esteem or self-core evaluation. Deelstra’s [12
] study indicates that employees’ response to social support depends on their perception of whether the amount of support provided threatens their needs for esteem. Extravagant social support spoils employees’ self-esteem at work and instead, conveys to employees a message of being less competitive [37
]. From this perspective, employees supplied with excessive social support will be less motivated due to the suppression of their needs for competence.
Third, the purpose of social support also involves meeting individuals’ needs for relatedness [47
]. Social support meets individuals’ needs for belonging by increasing the opportunities for individuals to engage with others and build more intimate relationships in the workplace. In an organization, social support can help employees find the meaning of group belonging. This means that employees’ needs for relatedness are met because of the status ascribed to them by organizations. However, excessive social support leads to an imbalance of employees’ status in the group, which will trigger multiple “side effects”, typically, the sense of coercive obligation to return [49
], sense of oppression with which employees are subject to organizational norms [50
], and also sense of the role conflict [51
]. Even though the social support provided by organizations is originally intended for the enhancement of employees’ belonging, additional and excessive relationship cost will come at the expense of employees’ work engagement.
Based on the above, it is suggested in the present study that a non-monotonous inverted U-shaped relationship exists between social support and work engagement. More specifically, before a certain inflection point, the increase in social support helps employees become more resourceful and motivated in their work, but continuous support does not yield ceaseless “efforts” from employees. In this case, the expansion of investment in social support will unavoidably bring about a waste of resources, and even give rise to the decline of work motivation. Employees sensing low social support feel that they have no obligation to return because they do not “benefit” from organizations. With the increase of invisible care given by organizations and instrumental resources, the basic psychological needs of employees are easily met. So, the increase in social support will boost employees’ work engagement [8
]. During this phase, even the care and working conditions given by organizations are not sufficient, employees are still willing to make efforts at work owing to their job identities assigned by organizations, such as career development opportunities and basic remuneration packages for survival. When receiving too many social support resources, employees’ corresponding personal abilities and energy resources are relatively scarce. In this situation, the more social support received by these employees, the lower their work engagement will be.
Compared with the group with high or low levels of social support, the group with moderate social support finds themselves in a situation where they “fall short of the best but are better than the worst,” and they boast adequate resources to fulfill their work obligations within their comfort range. Therefore, the matching of the resource supply and internal needs perceived by these employees comes to a “comfort point”, at which the incentive effect reaches its peak. After passing this inflexion point, they become less stimulated by the continuous increase of social support to step out of the “comfort zone”, yet, in the meantime, they perceive less negative emotions than the group with low levels of social support. In short, what they pay equals what they earn. Thus, it enables them to work in a relatively healthy and balanced way.
Built on an in-depth understanding of the too-much-of-a-good-thing theory, the following hypothesis can be proposed:
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
Social support and work engagement exhibit a significant inverted U-shaped relationship.