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Employee help-seeking: Antecedents, consequences and new insights for future research


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Although employee helping behaviors have been widely examined by organizational and human resource management scholars, relatively little is known about the antecedents and consequences of help-seeking in the workplace. Seeking to fill this gap, I draw from the social and counseling psychology literatures, as well as from research in epidemiology and health sociology to first conceptualize the notion of employee help-seeking and then to identify the variables and mechanisms potentially driving such behavior in work organizations. My critical review of this literature suggests that the application of existing models of help-seeking may offer limited predictive utility when applied to the workplace unless help-seeking is conceived as the outcome of a multi-level process. That in mind, I propose a model of employee help-seeking that takes into account the potential direct and cross-level moderating effects of a variety of situational factors (e.g., the nature of the particular problem, organizational norms, support climate) that might have differential influences on help-seeking behavior depending on the particular phase of the help-seeking process examined. Following this, I focus on two sets of help-seeking outcomes, namely, the implications of employee help-seeking on individual and group performance, and the impact of help-seeking on employee well-being. The chapter concludes with a brief examination of some of the more critical issues in employee help-seeking that remain to be explored (e.g., the timing of help solicitation) as well as the methodological challenges likely to be faced by those seeking to engage in such exploration.
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Peter Bamberger
Although employee helping behaviors have been widely examined by
organizational and human resource management scholars, relatively little
is known about the antecedents and consequences of help-seeking in the
workplace. Seeking to fill this gap, I draw from the social and counseling
psychology literatures, as well as from research in epidem iology and
health sociology to first conceptualize the notion of employee help-seeking
and then to identify the variables and mechanisms potentially driving such
behavior in work organizations. My critical review of this literature
suggests that the application of existing models of help-seeking may offer
limited predictive utility when applied to the workplace unless help-
seeking is conceived as the outcome of a multi-level process. That in mind,
I propose a model of employee help-seeking that takes into account the
potential direct and cross-level moderating effects of a variety of
situational factors (e.g., the nature of the particular problem, organiza-
tional norms, support climate) that might have differential influences on
help-seeking behavior depending on the particular phase of the help-
seeking process examined. Following this, I focus on two sets of help-
Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, Volume 28, 49–98
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seeking outcomes, namely, the implications of employee help-seeking on
individual and group performance, and the impact of help-seeking on
employee well-being. The chapter concludes with a brief examination of
some of the more critical issues in employee help-seeking that remain to
be explored (e.g., the timing of help solicitation) as well as the
methodological challenges likely to be faced by those seeking to engage
in such exploration.
The interest of management and organizational scholars in pro-social
behavior, ‘‘a broad category of acts that are defined by some significant
segment of society and/or one’s social group as generally beneficial to other
people’’ (Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005, p. 366), has expanded
at an impressive rate since Organ first introduced the concept of organiza-
tional citizenship behavior (OCB) in 1977. With its focus on discretionary
helping (Organ, 1988, p. 4; Organ, Podsakoff, & MacKenzie, 2006, p. 34),
much of the OCB literature gives the impression that such behavior is almost
spontaneous, with help-providers seeing an opportunity to provide assistance
and taking steps to do so, and the recipients of help being implicitly regarded
as passive agents (Va
nen, Buunk, Kivima
ki, Pentti, & Vahtera, 2005).
However, several recent treatments of employee helping examining such
behavior through the lens of social exchange (e.g., Bacharach, Bamberger, &
McKinney, 2000; Flynn, 2005) suggest that help-recipients may play a more
active role. For example, Flynn (2005, p. 737) suggests that while some
employees may indeed offer assistance spontaneously, ‘‘without any concern
about immediate or direct reciprocation,’ others with less collective or
relational identity orientations may be less forthcoming, preferring instead to
wait for help to be solicited so as to allow for the terms of such assistance to
be at least implicitly negotiated. This suggests that at least a certain
proportion of employee helping or individually directed OCB-I is in direct
response to the solicitation of help by a potential help-recipient and that such
active help-seeking is a critical element of any helping-based interaction
(Anderson & Williams, 1996). Indeed, Burke, Weir, and Duncan (1976) found
that approximately 90 percent of the helping interactions reported by the
managers they studied were initiated by someone seeking help. Moreover, as
noted by Nadler (1991, p. 290), helping relationships ‘‘commonly begin when
an individual seeks help.’
A number of scholars have pointed to the importance of employee help-
seeking in work organizations. For example, Capers and Lipton (1993)
discuss how a firm’s reputation may be severely damaged when employees fail
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to seek help for technical problems that they are unable to resolve on their
own. More specifically, they relate how, despite their direct access to some of
the leading optics researchers, the Hubble telescope development team failed
to turn to these experts for assistance when encountering technical problems
that they were unable to resolve on their own, with the upshot being the
launching of a space telescope with a seriously flawed mirror. Similarly,
regarding employee help-seeking for more emotional or personal/health
issues, Nadler (1991, p. 290) notes that ‘‘a better understanding of the help-
seeking process should result in the design of more effective helping programs,
which would foster better utilization of available resources and better
personal coping’’; a notion reinforced by the research conducted on employee
assistance and the management of troubled workers (Trice & Roman, 1972;
Bacharach et al., 2000). Indeed, an amicus brief submitted to the United
States Supreme Court in the recent case of Exxon Shipping v. Baker (i.e., the
Exxon Valdez oil spill case) highlighted employer efforts to facilitate help-
seeking on the part of troubled workers as playing a key role in the prevention
of such work-based tragedies (Exxon Shipping v. Baker,2007). Finally,
Morrison reports that among organizational newcomers, the frequency with
which employees sought help to enhance technical job performance and better
understand role expectations was associated with enhanced employee
satisfaction and job performance and with lower turnover intentions.
Surprisingly, however, while well-studied by social and clinical psychol-
ogists, with the exception of a handful of studies (e.g., Lee, 1997, 2002 ), the
concept of help-seeking in the workplace has been largely neglect ed by
organizational scholars. Defining employ ee help-seeking as an interpersonal
process involving the solicitation of the emotional or instrumental assistance
of a work-based colleague (i.e., peer, supervisor or subordinate) to manage
some problem either at or outside of work, my overall aim in this chapter is
to draw scholarly and practitioner attention to what I view as a critical but
under-researched construct. To do so, I will begin by explaining in greater
detail what employee help-seeking is and is not, how it differs from related
constructs such as feedback-seeking and information-seeking, and how it is
related to and distinct from other constructs in its nomological net. In
Section 2, I will then discuss the antecedents of help-seeking, reviewing those
individual and situational factors found by social psychologists and health
researchers to influence the propensity of adults to seek help. Then, in
Section 3, drawing from the theory of reasoned action (TRA; Ajzen &
Fishbein, 1980) and informational processing theory (IPT; Anderson, 1982),
I will present a model of how these and oth er factors at multiple levels of
analysis may interact to influence employee help-seeking as a cognitive and
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behavioral process. Following this, in Section 4, I will review the literature
examining the individual and organizational implications of employee help-
seeking, focusing on how help-seeking can influence both employee job
performance and individual well-being. Finally, I will discuss a number of
areas in which additional research is needed, highlighting some of the
methodological challenges unique to this type of research.
As described by Nadler (1991), help-seeking is a concept involving three
critical elements, namely, a person in need of help, a source of help, and a
specific need for help. Lee (1997) builds on these elements, noting that for an
action to qualify as help-seeking there must be (a) a problem or difficulty for
which one hope s to find relief or some remedy, (b) at least two parties with
one party soliciting the assistance of the other in what is fundamentally an
interpersonal interaction, and (c) proactive action on the part of the help-
seeker to gain the desired relief or remedy.
Much of the literature on help-seeking assumes a subjective expected
utility perspective and describes the construct in terms of the dilemma often
confronted by potential help-seekers (Anderson & Williams, 1996). This
‘‘help-seeker’s dilemma’ (Nadler, 1991, 1997) reflects this tension between
the perceived psychological benefits and costs of helping. Among the
psychological benefits of help-seeking are the potential ability to more
effectively and efficiently solve a problem (Ellis & Tyre, 2001; Nadler, 1991),
as well as the ability to (a) learn from or form a relationship with an expert
(Ellis & Tyre, 2001), (b) gain information and expertise (Morrison, 1993 ), (c)
improve task performance (Nadler, Ellis, & Bar, 2003; Weiss & Knight,
1980), and (d) learn new skills and knowledge to resolve problems in the
future (Clark, 1983; Leonard-Barton, 1989). Among the costs typically
considered are (a) the time and energy in identifying the appropriate help-
giver and soliciting his/her assistance (Tyre & Orlikowski, 1994), (b) the
financial costs of securing such assistance, and (c), perhaps most
significantly, the emotional and social costs having to do with the threat
that help-seeking may pose to one’s sense of self-efficacy and mastery
(Nadler, 1991; Lee, 2002). These emotional and social costs emerge in that
by soliciting assistance, one must implicitly acknowledge inferiority to
potential help-givers (Ames & Lau, 1982), admit incompetence (Karabenick &
Knapp, 1988a, 1988b), and accept dependence on someone else (Druian &
DePaulo, 1977). In that sense, help-seeking may be viewed by some as
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having the potential to severely damage the desired positive self-image that
most individuals seek (e.g., Ashford & Northcraft, 1992; Northcraft &
Ashford, 1990; Morrison & Bies, 1991; Lee, 1997, 2002).
Understanding these potential benefits and costs to help-seeking are
critical for two reasons. First, as we discuss in Section 1.1, they play a key
role in distinguishing help-seeking from other types of employee search
behaviors. Second, as we discuss later, they provide the groundwork for
understanding how individual differences, the nature of the problem faced,
and situational conditions may combine to influence help-seeking decisions.
1.1. How Help-Seeking is Distinct from Related Concepts
In a sense, one might argue that employee help-seeking is no different from
any other types of organizational behavior involving the proactive search
for some needed resource. For example, viewing feedback as a critical
resource that is not always spontaneously available to the employ ee,
organizational researchers (Ashford & Cummings, 1983; Ashford, Lee, &
Bobko, 1989) have explored the con cept of feedback-seeking. Like help-
seeking, feedback-seeking is proactive in nature. Moreover, since the
feedback received may be either positive or negative in nature, such
behavior can also incur significant psychological (i.e., ego-related) and social
(impression management-related) benefits and costs. Similarly, viewing
information as a critical resource, Morrison (1993) argues that as in
feedback-seeking, employees also engage in either monitoring or direct
solicitation (i.e., inquiry) to obtain informational cues relevant to their job,
what she refers to as ‘‘information-seeking .’’ Moreover, she asserts that
while both types of behaviors (i.e., feedback- and information-seeking) may,
as noted earlier, generate signi ficant returns to the seeker, the seeker may
also incur significant costs. Others (Tyre, 1992) suggest that it may be
difficult to disentangle help-seeking from feedback- and information-seeking
in that all three may occur concurrently.
But these related constructs are different from help-seeking in a number
of very significant ways. First, as noted by Lee (1997, p. 338), whereas
employees may engage in information- and feedback-seeking even where no
specific problem exists, help-seeking by definition is problem-focused. As
noted earlier, one seeks help specifically to resolve or cope with a problem,
while one may monitor feedback regularly without regard to any particular
performance issue (Ashford (1986), or may seek out information to prevent
performance- or role-related problems from emerging (Morrison , 1993).
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Second, help-seeking is solidly grounded in notions of social exchange.
Although information- and feedback-seeking may involve discretionary
behavior on the part of the individual from whom the information or
support is solicit ed, to the degree that feedback or information is often
sought precisely from those individuals filling position s (e.g., mentors,
coaches, boundary spanners) specifically designed to provide such feedback
and information, their provision cannot necessarily be deemed to be
discretionary on the part of the provider. In contrast, help-giving rarely
specified as a formal element of most jobs typically is discretionary, with
employers often relying on employees’ sense of ‘‘citizenship’ and good will
to motivate such behavior in all jobs. Moreover, as OCB researchers (Rioux &
Penner, 2001; Spitzmuller, Van Dyne, & Ilies, 2008) note, social exchange
(Blau, 1964) and the principles of reciprocity underlying it (Gouldner, 1960)
are likely to serve as critical motivators of such discretionary behav ior. In
this sense, while feedback and information seekers need not necessarily
consider reciprocity concerns when soliciting such resources from those
whose job descriptions mandate feedback and information provision,
because help-giving is rarely included as an element in most job descriptions,
help-seekers must take such concerns into account. And to the extent that
help-reciprocation demands the expenditures of personal resources, the
decision to seek help is likely to be strongly influenced by factors shaping
individuals’ subjective calculations of the perceived benefits of seeking help
relative to these perceived costs.
Finally, as also noted by Lee (1997), whereas feedback and informatio n
can be gleaned in the absence of interpersonal interaction (e.g., on-line,
covertly observing others’ behavior, engaging in third party listening;
monitoring ambient cues in one’s environment), helping by definition
requires interpersonal interaction. As noted earlier, in the absence of an
attempt by the help-seeker to initiate an interaction aimed at securing the
assistance of the potential help-provider, one simply cannot speak of help-
seeking. This is meaningful in that as soon as the solicitation of aid involves
an actual interaction, self-presentation concerns become salient, and with
self-presentation concerns come concerns about psychological costs. Thus,
while all forms of seeking behavior (i.e., feedback-, information-, and help-
seeking) involve some degree of percei ved instrumental benefit, what makes
help-seeking unique is that, by definition, such behavior involves
interpersonal interaction and with it the implicit consideration of the
psychological costs that may accompany any instrumental benefit gleaned
from the provision of the needed aid.
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1.2. Types of Help-Seeking
In an attempt to classify different forms of help-seeking, scholars have
tended to rely on one of two different approaches. The first, process
approach is grounded on the notion that it may be possible to distinguish on
the basis of the manner in which help is sought, with some help-seekers
soliciting frequent help aimed at allowing them to ‘‘get by,’’ and others
soliciting help less frequently but with the intent of using such assistanc e as a
means by which to enhance their own competencies and boost their
independence. The second, content approach is grounded on the notion that
one can distinguish between types of help-seeking on the basis of the form of
assistance being solicited.
1.2.1. Process Distinctions
For the past 30 years, researchers seeking to identify different forms of help-
seeking have been guided by the adage, ‘‘Give a person a fish and they’ll eat
for a day, but teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime,’’ and the
notion embedded in it that while some help-seekers may seek a quick
solution to their problem, others may seek to learn the competencies needed
to not merely solve any current crisis, but also to avoid or better manage
the issue generating problem in the first place. Thus, for example, Asser
(1978) distinguished between negotiating and didactic styles of help-seeking.
Those adopting a negotiating style retain responsibility for the solution
and seek insight that will help them find the solution on their own. In
contrast, a didactic style of help is based on the solicitation of assistance
aimed at the immediate resolution of the problem. Similarly, Karabe nick
and Knapp (1988a, 1988b) differentiated between executive help-seeking and
instrumental help-seeking, with the form er focusing on seeking others ’ help
to decrease the cost of task completion and the latter on understanding the
process that will be conducive to more independent problem solving in the
future. Most recent ly, Nadler (1998) distinguished between autonomous and
dependent help-seeking. An individual who engages in help-seeking with the
aim of becoming more independent is viewed as undertaking autonomous
help-seeking, whereas an individual who solicits assistance strictly with the
aim of solving the immediate problem is viewed as engaging in dependent
help-seeking. The autonomous help-seeker is considered an adaptive seeker
that will usually ask for the means (e.g., clarifying methods and hints) with
which to solve the problem by him or herself. In contrast, the dependent
seeker is considered a maladaptive seeker that will usually ask another
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person to provide him/her with a complete solution and pay little attention
to the processes leading to the solution of the problem.
Another framework for categorizing help-seeking has to do with the
degree to which the help-seeker’s intensity or frequency of help solicitation is
consistent with social norms and expectations. Thus, for example, Nadler
(1998) distinguishes between adaptive and mala daptive forms of help-
seeking. Maladaptive help-seeking is defined in terms of a level of help-
seeking intensity or frequency that is either greater or less than what woul d
be deemed socially acceptable or conventional in a given social context.
Seeking help too frequently or intens ively may be deemed as maladaptive in
that it suggests a habitual reliance on the help of others even when one
can do the job and solve the problem alone. Such very high levels of help-
seeking are likely to reflect lack of self-confidence rather than effecti ve
utilization of available resources. On the contrary, very low levels of help-
seeking also reflect a maladaptive behavioral pattern of habitual reluctance
to approach others for help, even at the cost of not being able to overcome
the difficulty.
Integrating these two categorization schemes, Nadler (1998) suggests that
it may be most useful to distinguish between three forms of help-seeking,
namely, autonomous, dependent, and avoidant, with only the autonomous
style an intermediate level of help-seeking associated wi th effective
coping and future independence. Indeed, recent research (Nadler et al.,
2003) demonstrates empirical support for the inverted U-shaped curvilinear
relationship suggested between these different forms of help-seeking and
individual performance, with lower levels of performance associa ted with
avoidant (i.e., infrequent) and dependent (frequent and intensive) forms of
help-seeking, and higher levels of performance associated with autonomous
(moderate intensity and frequency) help-seeking. Nevertheless, the distinc-
tion between autonomous and dependent help-seeking remains largely
conceptual, with only one or two studies applying this distinction
empirically (Nadler, 1998; Bamberger & Levi, 2009).
1.2.2. Content Distinctions
Finally, it may also be possible to distinguish between different types of
help-seeking on the basis of the form of help being solicited. Typically,
scholars examining helping and related constructs (e.g., social support) have
distinguished between two or three different forms of help or suppo rt,
namely, instrumen tal and informational (often clustered together as
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instrumental) and emotional help (e.g., House, 1981; Barrera, 1986).
Instrumental help-seeking involves the solicitation of assistance that is
more tangible in nature (e.g., provision of money, equipment, or human
capital; Caplan, Cobb, French, Van Harrison, & Pinneau, 1975) and that
at least in the workplace is directly related to the fulfillment of job
requirements and responsibilities. Informational help refers to the knowl-
edge and advice that individuals may seek from and provide to one another.
Such assistance may be tangible (e.g., provision of an article or book) or
intangible (e.g., referral to a good website or vendor) in nature. To the
degree that informatio nal help in the workplace also tends to be directly
related to the fulfillment of job requirements, informational help-seeking is
often considered as a particular form of instrumental help-seeking.
In contrast, emotional help-seeking involves the solicitation of assistance
that is largely non-tangible in nature and that while perhaps ultimately
having an impact on job performance is not directly aimed at facilitating
the fulfillment of job requirements. Rather, such help is aimed at facilitating
the resolution of problems that are more personal in na ture, often involving
relationship problems or issues relating to an individual’s psychological
well-being, and demanding the sharing of often intimate thoughts and
feelings. As such, relative to instrumental help-seeking, emotional help-
seeking tends to be more expressive and self-revealing in nature (Blau, 1977).
Recent empirical evidence suggests that such emotional help-seeking is
highly relevant to the workplace (Bacharach, Bamberger, & Vashdi 2005).
Indeed, Marks (1994) found that ha lf of all non-kin confiding relationships
reported in the General Social Survey were workplace-based.
The boundaries between these two main forms of help-seeking (i.e.,
instrumental and emotional) are not always clear cut. For example,
individuals may ostensibly seek assistance for a very tangible, task-related
workplace problem (inability to solve a task-related problem), while in
reality, using it as a means by which to informally or indirectly solicit advice
for support for a more deep-seated emotional problem (such as the inability
to concentrate on such work-related issues due to problems at home).
Similarly, individuals needing assistance for an emotional problem may
actually be soliciting informational or instrumental help (e.g., advice on or
referral to the best counselor for such matters) rather than emotional help
(e.g., a supportive ear or confidence-boosting talk). Nevertheless, the
distinction between instrumental and emotional help-seeking is useful in
that, as will be discussed later, the processes leading to (and consequences
stemming from) each of them have been found to differ somewhat.
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Understanding what help-seeking is and how it is distinct from related
constructs, we next turn to the individual difference and situational factors
that may explain the variance in individuals’ help-seeking decisions. More
specifically, we will attempt to answer a number of very basic questions
regarding employee help-seeking such as why are some workers quick to
request assistance while others prefer to sink deeper and deeper before even
considering the possibility of perhaps asking for help? and why might
individuals be more likely to ask for assistance with a computer-related
problem than with marriage-related problem? In answering these and other
similar questions, I will draw from two primary literatures on helping and
help-seeking, namely, the social psychology literature (which focuses on
examining pe rson and situational determinants of whether help is sought)
and the epidemiological literature (which focuses on linking individual
differences to services utilization).
As will be apparent from the discussion, in both of these literatures, the
antecedents of help-seeking have been framed around the help-seekers’
dilemma noted earlier. As such, researchers have tended to focus on those
individual and situational variables factors viewed as likely to either
enhance the perceived benefits of helping or lower the perceived costs of
helping. In general, variables that increase the perceived instrumental value
of help tend to be associated with an increased probability or frequency of
help-seeking behavior, whereas variables that increase the psychological
costs tend to be associated with a lower probability or frequency of help-
seeking (Nadler et al., 2003; Anders on & Williams, 1996).
For human resource (HR) scholars, this body of research certainly has its
limitations, not the least of which is that few of the studies in this domain
involve work or employees as the empirical referent. Nevertheless, I believe
that the findings are largely generalizable to the workplace, and in my
discussion, I will attempt to highlight the work-related implications of
those studies reviewed. Additionally, although the vast majority of the
research on the antecedents of help-seeking has been aimed at identifying
those variables that influence whether an individual engages in help-seeking
in the first place or the frequency with which they do so, as summarized in
Table 1, a handful of studies have sought to examine how these antecedents
may vary depending on the type of he lp sought. I will detail these findings
and link them back to the earlier discussion on help-seeking types where
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2.1. Individual Factors
Early findings on the individual difference variables factors influencing help-
seeking for physical and mental health problems indicate that gender,
education, race, and socio-economic status are all potentially important
predictors (DePaulo, 1982). More recently, additional individual difference
variables such as self-esteem, attachment style, achievement motivation,
shyness, self-monitoring, age, self-efficacy, and power motivation have also
been suggested as possible help-seeking an tecedents. In the following
sections, I review some of the findings of social psychologists regardi ng a
number of these possible help-seeking antecedents.
2.1.1. Gender
There is a gene ral consensus in the literature that women seek more help
than men regardless of the kind of help requested (e.g., medical help,
Verbugge, 1981; psych iatric help, Fischer, Winer, & Abramowitz, 1983;
radio counseling programs, Raviv, Raviv, & Yunovitz, 1989 ; and college
counseling centers, Robertson, 1988). Sex roles and gender socialization
provide the primary explanation for this phenomenon, with help-seeking in
Table 1. The Impact of Various Individual, Dyadic, and Situational
Characteristics on Help-Seeking by Type of Help Sought.
Amount of Help Sought by Help-Seeking Type
Autonomous Dependent Instrumental Emotional Reference
Gender No difference WomenWmen Robertson (1988)
Secures seek
more than
seek more
than others
––Nadler (1998)
Inverse U-shaped
Scott & Roberto
Karabenick &
Knapp (1988a,
Negative impact Positive impact Nadler (1987);
Bamberger, &
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most cultures deemed as a more legitimate element of the feminine sex role
than of the masculine sex ro le (Gross & McMullen, 1982). More specifically,
the traditional feminine sex role encourages other orientation and the
building or relationships (even at the cost of acknowledging dependency on
others), whereas masculinity emphasizes the display of strength, control,
achievement, and independence (Gilligan, 1982; Powell, 1990; Lee, 1997).
Consequently, enactment of the male sex role may result in a tendency
among men to avoid labeling needs and inadequacies as problems, thus
reducing the perceived need for the assistance of others (Wills & DePaulo,
1991). A second explanation for the tendency of women to seek help more
than men is that even when men define problems as such, relative to women,
they may place greater consideration on the negative impression that help-
seeking will have on others (Bruder-Mattson & Hovanitz, 1990). As a result,
for men, any instrumental gain from help-seeking is likely to be more
heavily counter-weighted by the psychological costs, making the help-
seeking alternative relatively less attractive.
Still, such gender differences in help-seeking do not necessarily manifest
themselves in the workplace. For example, while Lee (1997) found female
nurses to report higher self-reported help-seeking than male nurses,
differences in help-seeking between male and female physicians were not
significant. Lee (1997, p. 356) speculates that the lack of a significant gender
effect among physicians stems from the likelihood that when females were
put in the ‘‘masculine’’ role of physician, they ‘‘intentionally suppressed’’
behaviors indicative of dependence or inferiority such as help-seeking. The
research of Wills and DePaulo (1991) suggests an alternative explanation,
namely, that such gender differences may only apply for mild states of need.
Their findings suggest that when individuals face serious problems (i.e.,
matters likel y to be defined by all as a ‘‘problem’’), men may in fact seek
more help than women. Similarly, gender differences in help-seeking appear
to narrow when individuals require assistance for problems of a more
instrumental nature (Robertson, 1988), perhaps because such problems may
be deemed by men to be less stigmatizing than emotional problems.
2.1.2. Age
Age appears to have an inverse association with help-seeking (Brown, 1978;
Veroff, 1981). More specifically, as adults age, they tend to seek help less
frequently, most likely due to the importance these individuals place on
personal independence (Lieberman & Tobin, 1983). As noted by Nadler
(1991, p. 294), it may be that as the issue of independence becomes more ego-
central with declining health in older age, ‘‘the psychological costs associated
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with losing it, even temporarily, by seeking help are high, and help seeking is
not favored.’’ Given that older workers comprise an ever-increasing portion
of the workforce in many Western nations (Hedge, Borman, & Lammlein,
2006), these findings have potentially critical implications for HR scholars
and practitioners. More specifically, they suggest that as an organization’s
workforce ages, managers may need to adopt a more proactive approach to
employee help-seeking by, among other things, reinforcing workplace norms
facilitating and encouraging help-seeking.
2.1.3. Socio-Economic Status
Individuals with higher socio-economic status typically operationalized in
terms of education and income are more likely to seek psychological help
and do so more frequently than those associated with lower socio-economic
strata (Fischer et al., 1983; Nadler, 1998). However, such findings may reflect
the economic feasibility of service utilization more than anything else,
particularly in research in which actual visits to mental health professionals
serves as the dependent variable. For example, the inverse association
between socio-economic status and help-seeking may be spurious to the
extent that the lower socio-economic strata are dominated by members of
ethnic groups tending to rely on informal, family-based support (as opposed
to professional service providers) as a means by which to manage emotional
problems and needs. Indeed, there is no evidence linking socio-economic
status to the prevalence or frequency of instrumental forms of help-seeking.
Research has also tied socio-economic status to the way in which assistance
is solicited. More specifically, Asser (1978) found that higher socio-economic
status individuals tended to apply a negotiating style when seeking help,
while those with a lower socio-economic status employed a more didactic
style when seeking help. Thus, while the former sought help more frequently
than the latter, because those with a higher socio-economic status took on
more responsibility for problem resolution, the amount of help they required
on each help-seeking occasion was significantly less.
2.1.4. Self-Esteem
The effect of self-esteem on help-seeking behavior is controversial. Most
researchers argue that individuals high in self-esteem seek less help than
individuals that are low in self-esteem (e.g., Miller, 1985; Nadler & Fisher,
1986; Weiss & Knight, 1980). Following these findings, Nadler (1998) claims
that individuals that are high in self-esteem face the danger of underuti lizing
help, whereas those with low self-es teem face the danger of overutilizing it.
Indeed, Fischer et al. (1983) found that low-self-esteem individuals seek
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psychiatric treat ment more than high-self-esteem individuals. Miller (1985)
found the same phenomenon among alcoholics and abused women. This
connection between self-esteem and help-seeking has been summarized in
the notion, ‘‘the utility of humility’’ (Weiss & Knight, 1980), expressing the
idea that people high in self-esteem may tend to underutilize help whereas
people low in self-esteem show greater willingness to seek help. Weiss and
Knight (1980) illustrate their definition by describing situations in which
low-self-esteem individuals arrive at better solutions than high-self-esteem
individuals because they show more willingness to get other people’s
guidance and advice.
However, other researchers have found a positive link between self-esteem
and help-seeking (i.e., high-self-esteem individuals seek more help than low-
self-esteem individuals). For example, Aspinwall and Taylor (1992) reported
that high-self-esteem individuals actively seek social support to mitigate
stress. Similarly, Nadler, Mayseless, Peri, and Chemerinski (1985) found
that high-self-esteem individuals asked for help more frequently (Nadler
et al., 1985) when they were able to reciprocate such assistanc e. This finding
suggests that the perceived ability to reciprocate may condition the impact
of self-efficacy on help-seeking. As long as reciprocation is possible, those
with greater self-esteem may view help-seeking as posing no long-term risk
to their self-image and may thus discount the psycho logical costs associated
with such behavior (Nadler, 1986, 1991; Nahum-Shani & Bamberger, 2008).
2.1.5. Attachment Styles
Bowlby’s (1973) attachment theory serves as an additional source for
exploring individual difference variables that have bearing on help-seeking.
In this case, attachment styles serve as the independent variables. While
recent research by Geller and Bamberger (in press) suggests that attachment
style is predictive of instrumental (but not emotional) coworker helping,
Nadler (1998) uses Hazan and Shaver’s (1987) distinction between three
attachment styles (i.e., secure, avoidant, and anxious–ambiv alent) to predict
what kind of help-seeking behavior will be observed. Secure individuals (i.e.,
people who believe others will be there for them when they need them) were
predicted to engage primarily in autonomous help-seeking. Moreover,
according to Nadler, avoidant individuals (i.e., individuals with a tendency
to be fearful or dismissing of intimacy and who cope by denying and
inhibiting emotions) can be expected to underutilize he lp-seeking while
anxious–ambivalent (i.e., individuals who are preoccupied by their relation-
ships with others) can be expected engage in dependent help-seeking.
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2.1.6. Shyness
One of the main features of shyness is a refusal to seek help or advice
(Zimbardo, 1977), thus making it be almost by definition that shyness is
inversely associated with help-seeking (Nadler, 1991). Consequently, it is not
surprising that shy students have been found to solicit less help from their
academic advisor than non-shy students (Wills & DePaulo, 1991). However,
this inverse link between shyness and help-seeking may be conditioned by a
number of factors. One of these may be the degree to which the type of help
needed demands direct, face-to-face (as opposed to less personal, e.g.,
computer-mediated) help solicitation, with Nadler (1991) suggesting that the
inverse impact of shyness on help-seeking may be attenuated when
assistance is sought less personally or directly.
2.1.7. Achievement Motivation
Achievement motivation influences help-seeking behavior in two contra-
dictory ways. On one hand, high achievers appear to be more willing to
succeed than low achievers, and as such, they may demonstrate more help-
seeking (Nadler, 1998 ). In addition, due to the importance high achievers
attribute to task completion, one can expect more help-seeking from them
(Nadler, 1991). On the other hand, high achievers value individual
achievement and therefore prefer to cope by themselves and avoid seeking
help (Nadler, 1991). In her work on power motivation described earlier,
Lee (1997) reaches a similar conclusion, finding that when organizational
members perceive gaining and maintaining power as extremely impor-
tant, they are reluctant to seek help. These contradictory findings may be
resolved when taking the self-per ceptions of ability and control into
account. As long as the matter for which the individual seeks help does not
directly reflect on the individual’s overall ability and sense of control, high
achievers are likely to view the net benefits of help-seeking as outweighing
any social costs.
2.2. Situational Factors
Situational factors are also likely to play a role in shaping individuals’ help-
seeking decisions (Lee, 1997). Although a large number of situational
antecedents of help-seeking have been considered by social psychologists,
most of these can be clustered into three categories. The first concerns
the nature of the problem for which help-seeking may be considered.
The second concerns the characteristics of those from whom help may
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be sought. The third has to do with the context within which the help is
being sought.
In describing these three sets of situational factors, I will attempt to
highlight the mechanism by which each is thought to influence help-seeking.
In general, two main mechanisms may be considered. First, by shaping
individual perceptions of the relative costs and ben efits of help-seeking
mechanism, situational factors may have a direct, additive effect on the
subjective expected utility of such behavior. Second, consistent with trait
activation theory (Tett & Guterman, 2000), certain situational character-
istics may serve as a cue for the expression of some of trait-relevant
tendencies. That is, some of the individual difference effects on help-seeking
discussed in Section 2.1 may be contingent on the presence of certain
situational factors, suggest ing an interaction between individual differences
and situational antecedents of help-seeking. For example, Lee’s (1997)
finding that gender effects on help-seeking are contingent on the normative
context suggest that power motivation and concerns (stronger for some
individuals than for others) in help-seeking may be triggered by particular
contextual conditions.
2.2.1. Characteristics of the Problem for Which Help is Needed
Research has focused on three main problem characteristics that, by shaping
individual perceptions of the instrumental and emotional costs and benefits
of help-seeking, may ultimately play a role in determining whether or how
frequently individuals seek help, as well as the type of help they seek.
First, while researchers suggest that perceived problem severity or the level
of help needed may be associated with help-s eeking, there is a general lack of
consensus regarding the nature of this association. On the one hand,
research on help-seeking for mental health problems (i.e., emotional help-
seeking) indicates that the relationship is positive and linear with help-
seeking increasing monotonically as a function of problem severity or level
of need (Fischer et al., 1983; Scott & Roberto, 1985 ). On the other hand,
others (Amato & Saunders, 1985; Karabenick & Knapp, 1988a, 1988b) have
found a cu rvilinear relationship between the amounts of help needed and
help-seeking with high-ne ed individuals seeking little more help than low-
need individuals, and moderate-need individuals seeking the most help.
The discrepancy in these findings may stem from the empirical referent
used in each of these cases with the positive, linear relationship found in
studies of emotional help-seeking (e.g., help solicited for mental health
problems) and the curvilinear relationship found in studies of instrument al
help-seeking (e.g., help solicited for task-related problems in an educational
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context). While increasing levels of emotional/psychological need may make
normal functioning without help very difficult, increasing levels of
educational needs (e.g., failure to understand a theory or algorithm) do
not normally interfere with normal, every-day functioning. Moreover, in the
case of the latter, as suggested by Amato and Saunders, more severe
problems may cue indivi duals to perceive a sense of limit ed ability and low
self-esteem. As noted earlier, in such situations, help-seeking viewed as
only further threatening the individual’s sense of self-worth may amplify
the psychological costs of help-seeking and thus reduce the subjective
expected utility of any help received. As a result, instrumental assistance for
more severe problems may be less frequently solicited than instrumental
assistance for problems of mod erate severity.
A second problem-related characteristic likely to shape help-seeking has
to do with the degree to which the problem is perceived as being ego-central,
stigmatized, or embarrassing. Ego-central problems are those need states
that the individual perceives as reflecting some personal inadequacy for
which he/she is responsible and that cannot be attributed to some factor
beyond his/her control. Help-seeking for such problems requires the
recognition of such inadequacies and what may be perceived as the
admission of such inadequacies before some other person. Posing a direct
threat to the individual’s self-image or self-esteem, such problems may cue
esteem-based tendencies to avoid help-seeking or simply increase the
perceived psychological costs associated with the solicitation of assistance
(Lee, 2002). Regardless, to the degree to which problems are perceived as
such, they are likely to de-motivate help-seeking (Nadler & Fisher, 1986).
Indeed, Wills (1992) finds that most people who suffer from serious
psychological problems are reluctant to seek emotiona l help, even when this
help is provided without any cost. Similarly, Amato and Saunders (1985)
demonstrated that individuals may also be reluctant to seek help for
problems deemed to be embarrassing or stigmatizing. This body of research
would suggest , therefore, that a worker would be far more likely to seek
instrumental help (e.g., help for a computer glitch that he/she is unable to
resolve on his/her own) than for emotional help (e.g., help for a chronic
tardiness stemming from an underlying gambling addiction).
Finally, the degree to which the problem is perceived as being shared by
others or what Nadler (1991) refers to as problem consensus level is also
likely to shape the likelihood of help-seeking. Building on attribution theory
(Heider, 1958), researchers (Nadle r & Porat, 1978; Tessler & Schwartz,
1972) suggest that when need states are viewed as widely shared, individuals
will attribute their problems to external sources and view the need for
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assistance as something that is less self-threatening. In con trast, less widely
shared problems are more difficult to externally attribute, thus increasing
the likelihood that the problem will be deemed more ego-central and
consequently increasing the self-threatening nature of help-seeking and
reducing the likelihood of help-seeking. It is important to note, however,
that widespread sharing of a problem may also reduce the likelihood of
help-seeking if, as a result of the widespread prevalence of such behavior,
individuals are unaware that their behavior is ‘‘problematic.’’ For example,
as discussed by Sonnenstuhl (1996), employees with substance abuse
problems may be significantly less likely to seek help for their problem to
the extent that their drinking behavior is deemed ‘‘normal’’ by their peers.
To the extent that permissive organizational or occupatio nal drinking
norms may be interpreted by these individuals as evidence that their volume
or pattern of consumption is within the boundaries of ‘‘normal’’ (and hence
that they have no drinking problem), there is a diminished probability that
they will seek help (Sonnenstuhl, 1996; Bacharach et al., 2001).
2.2.2. Characteristics of Help-Provider
A second set of situational factors found to influence help-seeking behaviors
has to do with the characteristics of the help-provider. One such provider
characteristic has to do wi th his/her social proximity to, or status differences
relative to, the help-seeker. Theory suggests that individuals prefer to seek
assistance from socially proximate others (e.g., coworkers) to reduce the risk
of refusal (Blau, 1955) and avoid the risk of appearing incompetent in the
eyes of those able and often required to take administrative action if
incompetence is identified (Lee, 1997 ). However, the empirical research on
the impact of social proximity and status on help-seeking is mixed, with
experimental studies (typically of students presented with the opportunity to
seek help from a similar others; Nadler, Fisher, & Ben Itzhak, 1983; Nadler
& Fisher, 1986; Nadler, 1987) suggesting an inverse effect (i.e., proximity
reduces the likelihood of help solicitation) and field/epidemiological
research (focusing on intimate others; Wills, 1983; Wills & DePaulo, 1991;
Newman & Goldin, 1990; Morrison, 1993) suggesting the obverse.
One explanation for this empirical inconsistency may be the differential
operationalization of social proximity. Similar others are not necessarily
those that the individual feels close enough with to display personal
weaknesses or inadequacies. Indeed, on the basis of social comparison
theory (Festinger, 1954), the implicit admission of a personal inadequacy to
similar others as part of help-seeking may be more ego-threat ening than the
need to do so with individuals who are less socially proximate and therefore
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less likely to indu ce a negative comparison (e.g., supervisors, professionals).
In contrast, intimate others tend not to serve as the basis for social
comparison and instead may be defined as those with whom the individual
feels enough trust to openly expose personal limitations and inadequacies.
Indeed, the diminished psychological costs of seeking help from an
intimate other appear to underlie the tendency of individuals to precede any
formal help-seeking (e.g., soliciting the assistant of a consultant, clinician, or
psychologist) by first engaging in more informal help-seeking with those with
whom he/she is more socially proximate. The purpose of such initial,
informal help-seeking is to acknowledge the problem and generate possible
solutions or referral sources. Furthermore, depending on the nature of the
problem, the socially proximate help-provider may facilitate formal help-
seeking by taking on some of the responsibility of seeking more professional
help, thus reducing the perceived costs of doing so to the individual in need.
Indeed, this notion of social proximity in help-seeking underlies an important
stream of research in the management of troubled workers, namely, that
research focusing on peer assistance in the workplace (Sonnenstuhl, 1996;
Bacharach, Bamberger, & Sonnenstuhl, 1996; Bacharach et al., 2001).
A second help-provider characteristic influencing help-seeking appears to
be the helper’s physical attractiveness. Here too, the results are mixed, with
some results indicating that attractiveness may cue esteem-saving concerns
and thus deter help-seeking (Zanna & Pack, 1975; Stokes & Bickman, 1974),
others suggesting that attractiveness may cue ingratiation concerns and thus
motivating help-seeking (Nadler, Shapira, & Ben-Itzhak, 1982), and still
others indicating that the effects of attractiveness on help-seeking are
contingent on there existing a possibility for future interaction (i.e., least help
solicited from an attractive provider when a future meeting is expected;
Nadler, 1980) and on the social norms regarding the acceptability or
favorability of presenting oneself as dependent (i.e., more help solicited from
an attractive other when social norms emphasize the acceptability of
dependency; Nadler et al., 1982).
2.2.3. Context
The third set of sit uational factors found to influence help-seeking behaviors
has to do with the context within which help-seeking occurs. Of prim ary
concern is the visibility of such behavior to others with a number of studies
suggesting that the likelihood of help-seeking is greater when such behavior
is less exposed to others (Nadle r & Porat, 1978; Ashford & Northcraft,
1992). Underlying such an effect is most likely the heightened threat to self-
esteem or self-image generated when, by virtue of seeking help, individuals
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are required to publicly expose their inadequacy or dependency. However,
particularly in the workplace, employees may be concerned that any
exposure of their personal problems or inadequacies may generate formal or
informal responses contrary to their best interests. For example, individuals
may be hesitant to discuss a certain personal problem with coworkers for
fear that, should these matters come to the attention of management, they
could have significant, adverse career implications.
Such concerns on the part of those in need may explain the relatively high
utilization of anonymous helping services such as hot-line counseling (Hill &
Harmon, 1976). However, research by Raviv et al. (1989) suggests that these
advantages of anonymity may be attenuated when the problem or need is
deemed more serious. In such cases, the perceived benefits of soliciting help
may simply outweigh the perceived costs of possible exposure. Still,
recognition of the impact of visibility underlies the emphasis on confidenti-
ality in most work-based helping programs such as employee assistance
programs. Interestingly, while these programs in nearly all cases promise
employees that their services will be provided in confidence, research suggests
that employees may still have their doubts, thus potentially deterring
employee help-seeking and service utilization (Bacharach, Bamberger, &
Sonnenstuhl, 1994).
2.2.4. Workplace-Specific Contextual Factors
Other contextual fact ors specific to the workplace may also play a direct role
in shaping individual beliefs and expectations associated with help-seeking.
For example, Bacharach et al. (2005) found that unit support climates played
an important role in determining the degree to which employees turned
to one another for assistance on emotional matters. Similarly, studies on a
variety of organizational climate-related factors (e.g., Bennett & Lehman,
2001) suggest that common perceptions among unit members regarding the
degree to which unit members (a) are provided with autonomy and decision
influence and authority on the job (i.e., employee control climate), (b) can
be trusted not to leak private information (privacy regulation climate), and
(c) are expected to keep personal matters to themselves and out of the
workplace (i.e., privacy regulation climate) may also shape the beliefs and
outcome expectations (particularly those having to do with self-efficacy and
hence positive and negative disclosure expectancies) from which help-
seeking attitudes are derived. To the degree that such climates promote
more positive help-seeking beliefs and attitudes, help-seeking in such units is
likely to be greater than in units in which such climates are weaker or
altogether absent.
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Furthermore, studies examining the impact of organizational or work
unit norms (e.g., attendance norms) on the behavior of members of work
units (e.g., absenteeism) suggest that the more that particular behaviors are
commonly deemed by referent others in one’s workplace as being more
legitimate and acceptable, the more likely they are to be enacted by
individual members of such work units (Bamberger & Biron, 2007). Such
studies would suggest that beliefs about the legitimacy of certain types of
behavior may be influenced by contextual, stigma-related norms, with these
norms therefore influencing perceived need states and hence the subjective
expected utility of help-seeking. For exampl e, chronically absent employees
may be less likely to seek help for their absence problem in work units in
which such behavior is deemed ‘‘normal’’ and ‘‘legitimate’’ than in units in
which attendance is the norm and absenteeism is labeled as problematic.
Norms of collectivism (emphasizing interdependence) or individualism
(emphasizing the importance of independence) may also influence help-
seeking (Lee, 1997). For example, in units characterized by strong
individualistic norms, workers may be more reluctant to request the
assistance of others since that would be an open acknowledgment of
dependence, directly cou nter to what is commonly viewed as appropriate
and legitimate. In contrast, in units with more collectivistic norms,
employees may feel that help-seeking is in fact encouraged as a means by
which to spread (and hence even equalize) knowledge and reinforce mutual
interdependencies. Interestingly, in her experimental study of helping-
seeking, Lee (1997) found that while females’ help-seeking remained
relatively constant regardless of normative condition, males’ help-seeking
was significantly conditioned by normative con dition (i.e., higher under
collective conditions, lower under individualistic conditions).
Finally, drawing from non-work-based studies, we can infer that a variety
of workplace social network charact eristics may play a role in determining
attitudes regarding help-seeking. For example, to the degree that longer
enduring social networks are likely to enhance reciprocity beliefs and hence
lower disclosure expectancies (Wills & DePaulo, 1991), average unit-
member tenure may be associated with increased prevalence of help-seeking.
Despite the advances in the research on help-seeking noted earlier,
significant gaps in our understanding of help-seeking processes, particularly
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as they unfold in the workplace, remain. First, most work-based help-
seeking studies have focused on demographic differences in rates of
employee assistance services utilization (e.g., Bamberger & Sonnenstuhl,
1996; Bennett & Lehman, 2001), with only a handful of studies seeking to
identify workplace-specific, situational determinants of help-seeking (e.g.,
Lee, 1997; Nadler et al., 2003; Geller, Ellis, & Nadler, 2008). Second, given
the difficulties in conducting prospective research on actual help-seeking,
few studies have been designed to examine the interplay over time of
individual and contextual factors serving as possible triggers and barriers to
help-seeking. Instead, much of the resear ch on help-seeking has focused on
either retrospective accounts provided by those who received assistance or
cross-sectional studies of individuals’ (often students’) help-seeking attitudes
or intentions to seek help. Consequently, the work-based help-seeking
literature lacks any theory-driven model aimed at depicting how each of
these different factors some at the individual level and some at the unit or
organizational level may combine to shape help-seeking decisions.
In attempt to begin to fill this gap, I propose a model that integrates many
of the factors noted earlier into a single model of work-based help-seeking;
one based on two theoretical perspectives, namely, the TRA (Ajzen &
Fishbein, 1980) and IPT (Anderson, 1982). The TRA is appropriate for
understanding help-seeking processes in that it is a general, utility-based
framework for understanding the process by which particular behaviors, as
well as shifts in behavioral patterns, emerge. Indeed, as noted by Vogel,
Wester, Wei, and Boysen (2005, p. 460), ‘‘several researchers have suggested
that a better understanding of people’s help-seeking behavior could be
gathered by using the TRA.’’ An informational processing approach may be
useful in that, as noted by Vogel, Wester, Heesacker, Boysen, and Seeman
(2006), while such an approach views behavior as emerging as the result of
an active decision-making process on the part of the individual, it also
assumes that this process is strongly influenced by how people interpret and
respond to their environment. Consequently, as a theoretical perspective, it
demands the incorporation of context and situational influences into the
explanatory model as individuals encode and interpret internal and external
cues, generate and evaluate the benefits and costs of alternative behavioral
options, and decide on and enact a selected response (Vogel et al., 2006,
p. 399). On the basis of these two perspectives, I propose a step-based,
process model in which personal and social factors shape expecta ncy beliefs
that, in turn, influence attitudes toward seeking help, with the latter deemed
to play a significant role in determining the likelihood that an individual will
actively seek help.
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This model (portrayed in Fig. 1) incorporates two sub-processes . The first
sub-process models the (a) direct and indirect impact of personal and
contextual fact ors on individuals’ attitudes toward seeking help and
(b) problem recognition and need awareness. The second sub-process describes
how these help-seeking attitudes interact with need awareness and problem
recognition to influence actual help-seeking, and how this interaction may
itself vary across work units depending on particular unit characteristics
(i.e., a three-way, cross-level interaction).
3.1. Shaping of Attitudes toward Help-Seeking and Need Awareness
Vogel et al. (2005, 2006) and Vogel and Wei (2005) have demonstrated that
the link between a variety of personal help-seeking beliefs and expectations
and the intent to seek help is fully mediated by attitudes toward seeking help
in general. Indeed, Vogel et al. (2005, p. 460) argue that because many of the
psychological factors examined in earlier research as possible antecedents of
help-seeking (and reviewed earlier) ‘‘may be considered either to be perceived
as those that lead to a positive outcome (e.g., reduce feelings of distress) and
thus increase positive attitudes, or to be perceived as leading to a negative
outcome (e.g., increased social stigma, fear of having to disclose painful
feelings) and thus increase negative attitudes,’ these psychological factors
may be most appropriately and parsimoniously be modeled as outcome
expectations effecting persons’ help-seeking intentions and behaviors through
their effect on attitudes. This linkage is indicated by path 1 in Fig. 1.
Using student samples, Vogel et al. (2005, 2006) found support for
five belief factors as predictors of attitudes toward seeking help, namely,
(1) public stigma-related beliefs (i.e., perceptions that by seeking help the
individual will be viewed by a particular group as undesirable or socially
unacceptable), (2) private stigma-related beliefs (i.e., the belief that by
seeking help for a particular problem one is inferior or less adequate or at
least admitting failure), (3) positive and (4) negative outcome expectancies
(i.e., utility, risk) associated with the self-disclosure of distressing emotions,
and (5) beliefs about the norms held by intimate others regarding the
acceptability of seeking help for a given problem (i.e., normative beliefs). As
might be expected, however, the influence of public stigma beliefs and
negative outcome expectancies as predictors of help-seeking attitudes was
contingent on the type of problem for which help might be sought, with
effects amplified in the case of more emotional/psychological problems such
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and Problem
Toward Help -
Expectations & Beliefs
(e.g., Positive &
Negative Disclosure
Work Unit
Characteristics (e.g.,
permissive norms;
normative, privacy
regulation and peer
intervention climates,
mean unit member
tenure; peer/supervisor
support climates; unit-
level awareness
of/confidence in
Problem Type and Need
and personal
Fig. 1. An Integrative Model of Work-Based Help-Seeking.
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as an alcohol problem . This moderating effect of problem type is reflected
by path 2 in Fig. 1.
While there is little doubt that such beliefs and expectancies are shaped by
multiple individual factors such as those reviewed earlier (path 3 in Fig. 1),
they may also be influenced by workplace characteristics and thus mediate
the link between workplace characteristics and attitudes tow ard help-
seeking (path 4 in Fig. 1). Organizational and unit norms regarding
particular work behaviors and misbehaviors may serve as one such set of
workplace characteristics potentially shaping outcome be liefs and expec-
tancies. Thus, for example, nor ms encouraging independence and indepen-
dent coping have been highlighted as generating rather negative outcome
expectancies and consequently negative help-seeking attitudes among school
teachers (Chubbuck, Clift, Allard, & Quinlan, 2001). Similarly, as suggested
by Sonnenstuhl (1996), for employees with drinking problems, permissive
unit norms regarding alcohol consumption are likely to enhance individuals’
public and private stigma-related beliefs about help-seeking for such
behavior (i.e., strengthen beliefs that help-seeking for drinking behavior is
not deemed legitimate by intimate others). To the degree that heavier
patterns of drinking are deemed legitimate and ‘‘normal’’ in the work unit,
members of work units characterized by more permissive drinking norms
may take it for granted that their peers would question the appropriateness
of turning for professional help for dealing with one’s drinking behavior, or
worse, might even view it as a sign that one is not ‘‘s trong enough’’ to hold
their liquor. Consequently, members of work units characterized by more
permissive work units may attach greater public and private stigma to help-
seeking than members of units with less permissive drinking norms and may
therefore have less positive attitudes about seeking help.
A second set of contextual factors likely to influence stigma, perceived
social norms and outcome expectancy beliefs (and hence help-seeking
attitudes), are those having to do with the unit support climate (Bacharach &
Bamberger, 2007), namely, the degree to which (a) unit members’ norms
promote and are supportive of help-seeking (i.e., normative climate), (b) unit
members trust one another with not leaking private information (privacy
regulation climate), (c) unit members feel willing and able to intervene to
help coworkers with personal problems and encourage one another to seek
help (as opposed to encouraging them to simply ‘‘sweep them under the
rug’’) when doing so (peer intervent ion climate). Two separate streams of
research suggest that such unit support climate factors are likely to result in
members maintaining more positive disclosure expectations and fewer
stigma-related beliefs (Rickwood & Braithwaite, 1994).
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First, in units in which such behavior is widely supported and encouraged
by peers employees, help-seekers’ expectancies about the willingness of
providers to accede to help requests may be more consistent with actual
provider willingness. Recent research by Flynn and Lake (2008) indicates that
help-seekers may underestimate by as much as 50 percent the likelihood that
others will agree to a direct request for help, implicitly increasing the
perceived social costs of soliciting assistance. They demonstrate that this
discrepancy stems largely from the tendency of help-seekers to underestimate
the social costs to help-providers of declining such a request (i.e, saying ‘‘no’’).
To the extent that units characterized by stronger support climates may better
align seeker perceptions of such costs with those of help-providers, potential
help-seekers may be less concerned about the costs of request denial, and thus
be more willing to self-disclose problems or competency limitations.
Second, employees may be more willing to self-disclose problems or
competency limitations when they are employed in more supportive work
units in that they may have fewer concerns about privacy or confidentiality
(Bennett & Lehman, 2001). Indeed, previous research suggests that problem
concealment is more likely when individuals lack social support (Cramer,
1999) or more specifically fear gossip or distrust confidentiality at work
(Bennett & Lehman, 1997; Hood & Duphorne, 1995). In contrast, group
members’ willingness to talk about problems or seek out help tends to be
greater in groups characterized by a more supportive climate (Bennett,
Lehman, & Reynolds, 2000 ). In examining the extent to which several of
these unit climate factors were associated with either indivi dual’s own help-
seeking or encouraging others to seek he lp, Bennett and Lehman (2001)
found that members of work groups characterized by stronger privacy
regulation climates were significantly more likely to both themselves seek
help and encourage others to do so. Moreover, they found that both privacy
regulation and intervention climates could be significantly enhanced by
means of various team-building interventions.
Taken together, these two streams of research suggest that individual
beliefs and expectancies regarding help-seeking are likely to at least partially
mediate the association be tween unit normative, privacy regulation, and
peer intervention climates (on the one hand), and an individual’s attitudes
toward seeking help (on the other).
Finally, the model also specifies that individual differences and contextual
factors are also likely to interact with problem type in shaping need
awareness and problem recognition (paths 5a–5c). Such interaction effects
are grounded on the counseling and psychotherapy literatures and, in
particular, on Kanfer’s (1970) model of self-regulation. This model suggests
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that, on the basis of self-monitoring, individuals should in principle
become more aware of a problem as it increases in severity. That is, problem
severity provides the basic informational input driving problem awareness
and recognition. However, certain types of problems (e.g., substance abuse)
may inherently impose restrictions on the focused awareness needed for
individuals to view objective information as indicative of such a problem
(Nye, Agostinelli, & Smit h, 1999 )
Moreover, Kanfer’s model suggests that to the degree that no such
problem-based barriers to information flow are imposed, for such
information to be interpreted as a problem, individuals must compare this
information to some internal and external standard and perceive some sort
of discrepancy. In this context, certain individual differences, such as those
having to do with dispositional self-awareness (Hull, 1981; Hull, Young, &
Jouriles, 1986) and resistance to change (Oreg, 2003), may also condition the
degree to which such informational inputs drive problem recognition. For
example, those less frequently engaging in self-reflection (a behavior
characteristic of more self-aware individuals) may be slower or less likely
to pick up on any change (relative to the past) in behavioral patterns or
performance-related outcomes. Similarly, to the extent that external
standards are such that no discrepancy is recognized (e.g., in those work
contexts in which such problems or conditions are viewed as ‘‘normal’’),
even severe problems may be less likely to be recognized as such. For
example, as noted earlier, Sonnenstuhl’s (1996) research on occupational
drinking cultures suggests that in occupations characterized by more
permissive alcohol-related norms, individuals may be less likely to recognize
any discrepancy between their behavior and that of others and thus be less
likely to recognize objective alcohol misuse as a problem.
3.2. Help-Seeking Attitudes, Need Recognition, and Actual Help-Seeking
Research suggests that both problem/need recognition and positive attitudes
toward seeking help are likely to be predictive of actual help-seeking behavior
and that each may condition the effect of the other on such behavior. For
example, most models of help-seeking for drinking problems include reference
to both some sort of readiness term (alternatively referred to as ‘‘recognition
that an alcohol problem exists’’; Pringle, 1982) or ‘‘readiness to be concerned’’
(Hingson, Merrigan, & Heeren, 1985) and some metric for attitudes and
beliefs about the efficacy of help or treatment (Jordan & Oei, 1989). While no
study to date has directly tested the independent or interactive effects of
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problem recognition and attitudes toward seeking professional help in the
context of a single, multivariate model, logic suggests that even the most
positive attitudes toward help-seeking are unlikely to motivate an individual
to address that problem by soliciting assistance if he/she fails to recognize a
problem as such. Similarly, individuals recognizing the existence of a problem
may be less likely to solicit assistance to the extent that they retain less
positive attitudes toward help in general. Consequently, as indicated by paths
6a and 6b in Fig. 1, I propose that the link between attitudes toward seeking
help and actual help-seeking are likely to be amplified as a function of
problem/need awareness and recognition.
Still, it should be restated that problem recognition may not necessarily
result in the immediate solicitation of assistance from that person
(consultant) or service provider (e.g., employee assistance program) most
able to help. Rather, particularly in the case of help aimed at addressing an
emotional/psychological need or a more severe instrumental need, such
formal help-seeking is likely to be preceded by more informal help-seeking
(Wilcox & Birkel, 1983). For example, research on troubled workers suggests
that the link between problem recognition and actual help-seeking from a
professional source is often mediated by the solicitation of advice from one’s
informal social network (Bamberger & Sonnenstuhl, 1996). Wills (1983)
explains individuals’ tendency to first turn to informal sources as being a
function of three factors: (a) these informal sources are familiar, inexpensive,
and proximate; (b) these sources allow for reciprocal exchange reducing the
sense of indebtedness; and (c) such help-seeking is generally perceived to be
less visible and ‘‘public’’ than help-seeking from a professional source.
Finally, work-based contextual factors are also likely to play a role in
determining the extent to which both attitudes toward seeking help and
problem/need recognition affect the likelihood of actual helping-seeking.
First, based on the work of Clark (1983), and as portrayed in path 7 of
Fig. 1, I posit that the link between problem recognition and help-seeking is
likely to be moderated by factors contributing to the development of more
communal-based relationships (as opposed to more instrumental exchange-
based relationships) in the workpl ace. This is because help-seeking is likely
to be enabled in those contexts in which the help-seeker assumes that he/she
will need not have to be able to immediately and directly reciprocate ( Rosen,
1983; Mansfield, Addis, & Courtenay, 2005; Addis & Mahalik, 2003). As
noted earlier with regard to the impact of support climate, the ability to
more generally reciprocate over time to the broader social unit (as opposed
to the need to directly and immediately reciprocate to the individual
providing assistance) reduces the potential emotional costs of advice
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solicitation in that concerns over becoming indebted are attenuated by the
fact that the social context is one in which favors are more easily and
routinely exchanged. Indeed, social network research has found that help-
seeking, particularly for high-stigma problems, is more prevalent in more
cohesive and reciprocity -friendly networks (Wilcox & Birkel, 1983).
Research on social networks and helping (Wills & DePaulo, 1991; Wilc ox
& Birkel, 1983) suggests that work units characterized by more enduring
social networks (i.e., experiencing lower rates of member turnover and
whose membership, as a result, is generally more stable) are likely to be
those in which individuals perceive a greater potential for reciprocity, thus
facilitating help-seeking. Logically, to the extent that a unit’s membership is
more in flux, unit members are likely to find it more difficult to develop the
more dense social ties allowing for the assumption of recipr ocity, thus
reducing the likelihood of informal help-seeking (Wilcox & Birkel, 1983).
Second, the impact of attitudes toward help-seeking and actual help-
seeking behavior is also likely to be conditioned by the workplace context.
In particular, research on services utilization (Thom, 1986, 1987; Beckman
& Kocel, 1982) suggest s that the impact of individuals help-seeking
attitudes on actual help-seeking is likely to be conditioned by the presence or
absence of a variety of practical barriers to help-seeking such as the
geographic distance to the help-provider and the economic (as opposed to
psychological) cost of assistance. For example, in many work organizations,
insurance coverage for costs associated with mental health care may reduce
the saliency of economic barriers. In addition, the availab ility of employee
assistance (Larson, Eyerman, Foster, & Gfroerer, 2007) or member
assistance (Bacharach et al., 1994) services may further reduce such
practical barriers to help-seeking in that these programs are staffed by
individuals specifically trained to work with help-seekers, service providers,
and insurance carriers to resolve not only insurance and cost-related factors
but also issues related to proximity and childcare as well.
Unfortunately, however, in many organizations, awareness of and trust in
such services and programs may vary from unit to unit, with awareness and
trust greater in those units led by either supervisors who are themselves
aware and supportive of the use of such benefits and servi ces or whose
members have effectively utilized such benefits or services in the past
(Bacharach et al., 1994; Milne, Blum, & Roman, 1994). Social influence and
social information processing theories (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978) suggest
that individuals employed in units characterized by low awareness or trust in
such benefits and services are themselves less likely to be aware of the
availability of such benefits or services from their employer and union, or if
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aware, skeptical of the quality or trustworthiness of such programs. For
these individuals, therefore, even a combination of problem/need recogni-
tion and positive attitudes toward seeking help may be insufficient to
overcome such practical barriers, thus reducing the probability that the
employee will seek assistance and increasing the lag time before the
individual does so (Milne et al., 1994; Lee, 1997).
3.3. Summary
The model presented above attempts to integrate many of the individual-
level and contextual factors influencing employee help-seeking behavior
within the framework of two theories of human behavior, namely, the TRA
(Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980) and IPT (Anderson, 1982). While complex, the
model attempts to depict how the decision to seek help is likely to unfold in
a work context. As noted, the relationships among particular variables
embedded in this model are likely to vary depending on the nature of the
problem for which help may be sought (e.g., a highly egocentric and
stigmatized, emotional/psychological problem, such as an alcohol use
disorder, versus an instrumental problem, such as identifying the source of a
bug in a computer program). However, the overall framework may be used
by both researchers and practitioners to better understand the complex
network of multilevel factors potentially influencing he lp-seeking decisions
and the way in which they may do so.
Understanding how individual, problem-related, and organizational factors
combine to influence the likelihood or frequency of help-seeking, we next turn
our attention to the implications of help-seeking. In this section, I will review
the research on two main outcomes relevant to organizations and their
members, namely, individual and team performance and employee well-being.
4.1. Help-Seeking and Performance
Although many researchers argue that employee help-seeking is a largely
beneficial and productive organizational behavior (Ashford, 1986; Morrison,
1993; Tyre & Ellis, 1993), the social psychology and management literatures
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suggest that these effects may not necessarily have universally positive effects
on individual and team/group performance. Indeed, a number of studies
suggest that frequent seeking of assistance (George, 1977) or seeking of
assistance on easy tasks (Stone, 1988) may in fact be detrimental to
In terms of the positive implications of help-seeking at the individual level,
instrumental help-seeking is likely to yield beneficial performance effects
in that conceptually, it is directly tied to the notions of learning, uncer-
tainty reduction, and information elaboration (West, 2000; van Ginkel, &
van Knippenberg, 2008). Indeed, as noted by Nadler et al. (2003), many of
the mechanisms by which organizational members learn involve help-
seeking activities such as approaching colleagues to seek ideas (Allen, 1977),
obtaining expert advice (Eisenhardt, 1989), or requesting feedback or
information (Ashford, 1986; Morrison, 1993). For example, Morrison
(1993) argues that help-seeking (particular in the form of information
solicitation) is likely to have a positive impact on job performance in that it
reduces the level of uncertainty faced by such individuals. Building on the
notion that by seeking assistance employees are able to more rapidly gain
a better and more accurate understanding of their job and work context,
Morrison argues that the resulting reduction in work-related uncertainty
allows individuals to better understand role expectations and source-needed
job resources, thus generating enhanced job performance. Indeed, using data
drawn from 240 newly recruited accountants, Morrison (1993) demonstrates
that the overall frequency of information-seeking was highly predictive of
subsequent levels of newcomer job performance, explaining nearly 10
percent of the variance in that outcome. No less important, she found that
the overall frequency of information-seeking was associated with lower
levels of newcomer turnover intentions.
The seeking of emotional help has also been found to be associated with
enhanced individual performance. As noted by Bacharach et al. (2005), the
interpersonal facilitation and helping at the root of supportive peer relations
have been fou nd to have an impact on both individual job performance
(Schauebroeck & Fink, 1998) and group and organizational performance
(see Podsakoff, MacKenzie Paine, & Bachrach, 2000 for a review). For
example, studying a sample of non-exempt employ ees, Podsakoff and
MacKenzie (1997, p. 266) found peer helping (e.g., ‘‘encouraging each other
when someone is down’’) to have a significant positive impact on
organizational performance outcomes, explaining (along with two other
OCBs) 26 and 17 percent of the variance in these two outcomes respectively.
Similarly, using a sample of limited-menu restaurants, Walz and Niehoff
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(1996) found helping to explain 39, 15, and 20 percent of the variance across
restaurants in customer satisfaction, operating efficiency, and performance
quality, respectively. Moreover, a survey of 400 companies conducted by the
Gallup organization found that workers’ ability to form supportive
relationships at work to be among the most powerful of 12 indicators of
a highly productive workplace (Wall Street Journal, 2000). To the extent
that such supportive relations are established on the basis of peer-based
help-seeking, it is reasonable to assume that the performance benefits of
help-seeking are not limited to only instrumental forms of assistance.
Similarly, at the team or group level, the interdependent nature of relations
among team members is such that to achieve high performance, team
members have little choice but to develop helping dynamics in which the less
expert team members are able to seek instrumental assistance from their
more expert peers (Van der Vegt & Van de Vliert, 2005). As noted by Van der
Vegt, Bunderson, and Oosterhof (2006, p. 878), in teams characterized by
members with varying competencies, ‘‘it is a common aspiration . . . to
increase the overall expertness of the team through the more expert members
helping the less expert members.’’ Moreover, recent research suggests that
help-seeking may enhance team performance by facilitating team creativity
(Hargadon & Bechky, 2006), learning (Holman, Epitropaki, & Fernie, 2001),
and the development of shared understandings regarding the nature of the
team task (van Ginkel & van Knippenberg, 2008).
However, while it is quite logical to assume that individual and team
effectiveness will increase as a function of member help-seeking, a number of
factors are likely to condition such an effect. That is, the positive impact of
help-seeking is likely to occur only if a number of conditions are met. First,
help-seeking is likely to generate enhanced levels of performance only to the
degree that the recipient of such requests for assistance accedes to them and
provides assistance. Those asked to provide assistance are not always willing
to do so, and their hesitation and refusal to provide such assistance may
significantly increase the perceived psychological costs of help-seeking to the
help-seeker. Not only might unsuccessful help-seeking thus serve as a
negative influence on subsequent help-seeking by a given team member
(Anderson & Williams, 1996), from a game-theoretical pe rspective, it may
also generate tit-for-tat behavior , having negative implications on dyadic
relations and overall team cohesion (Axelrod & Dion, 1988; Erev & Roth,
Second, even if the recipient accedes to such a request, the assistance
provided may not result in any enhancement in performance if the person
from whom the help was sought is unqualified or unable to provide such
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assistance. Indeed, recent studies (Nadler et al., 2003; Borgatti & Cross,
2003) suggest that the contribution of help-seeking to performance is largely
contingent on the instrumental value of the available assistance, with this
instrumental value itself being primarily determined by the task-relevant
experience of the helper. For example, Nadler and his colleagues (Nadle r
et al., 2003) found that helpers’ experience moderated the relationship
between help-seeking and supervisors’ evaluations of employees’ performance,
such that when the help-provider was perceived as more knowledgeable,
higher levels of help-seeking were associated with better performance.
Finally, as suggested by Nadler’s (1997, 1998) distinction between auto-
nomous, dependent, and avoidance styles of help-seeking (discussed earlier),
the frequency or intensity with which an individual seeks help may also
moderate its impact on individual and group performance. Very low levels of
help-seeking may reflect a pattern of habitual reluctance to approach others
for help, resulting in the chronic under-utilization of available resources and
inadequate levels of individual learning and competency development. In
contrast, very high levels of help-seeking may reflect a pattern of habitual
reliance on help, resulting in the chronic under-development of independent
competencies and misallocation of team resources particularly when inde-
pendent task completion serves as a viable alternative.
Research on help-seeking by students (Arbreton, 1998) suggests that
individuals who ask for help too quickly without first trying to work on the
task themselves are excessive help-seekers and are unlikely to develop
autonomous problem-solving skills or master the task in question. However,
since students who avoid asking for the help they need may similarly
decrease the likelihood of future independent mastery, as suggested by Ryan
and Pintrich (1998, p. 117), the effects of help-seeking on learning and
performance may be maximized to the extent that individuals ‘‘ask for help
that is limited to the amount and type necessary to allow them to solve the
problem independently.’’ In this sense, the frequency of help-seeking may
have a curvilinear relationship with individual and group/team perfor-
mance, with moderate levels of help-seeking generating higher levels of
performance and low or high levels of help-seeking resulting in reduced
levels of performance.
In one of the few studies directly examining the effects of help-seeking
on individual performance, Nadler et al. (2003) tested for this curvilinear
relationship using a database of 165 work-based help-seeking interactions.
Their results indicated that up to a certain high level of help-seeking, the
more a target individual seeks help from one’s colleagues, the higher the
performance evaluations of that target by his/her superior. However,
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beyond that point, more frequent requests for help, rather than further
boosting performance, do just the opposite and are associated with more
negative supervisory evaluations of performance.
Similarly, in a more recent study examining the impact of the aggregate
level of help-seeking by team members on team performance, Geller et al.
(2008) also found evidence of this curvilinear relationship. Using social
network data drawn from the members of 125 development teams, they
found that teams reporting low and high levels of help-seeking were
evaluated by their department heads as largely ineffective, while teams with
a medium level of help-seeking were evaluated as highly effective. More
specifically, they found that teams characterized by high or low mean
member help-seeking frequencies did not effecti vely manage the work
processes and did not effectively utilize available team resources for coping
with time constraints and financial difficulties in getting the work done and
accomplishing the team’s goals. In contrast, teams that were characterized
by an intermediate level of help-seeking by their members control led the
work process more effectively, with their members exploiting their time and
knowledge resources and advancing the team’s goals more effectively.
4.2. Help-Seeking and Employee Well-Being
Although there is some evidence that help-seeking is directly associated with
enhanced employee well-being, most of the research evidence suggests that
any linkage between the two is mediated by either the provision of help (be it
emotional or instrumental) or services utilization.
Focusing first on the direct effects of help-seeking on well-being, a
number of studies suggest that both the willingness to seek help and the
simple act of help solicitation (regardless of whether help is provided or not)
may be beneficial to the seeker. For example, Marcelissen, Winnbust, Bunk,
and De Wolff (1988) found willingness to seek help associated with lower
job-related stress. Similarly, Heaney, Price, and Rafferty (1995) found that
relative to a control group, employees participating in a training program
designed to enhance employees’ ability to mobilize support and help at work
subsequently experienced significantly fewer depressive symptoms and less
somatization. Such direct effects on well-being may stem from the impact of
help-seeking on employee perceptions of their own ability to cope with
stressful circumstances. In particular, consistent with demand-control
models of stress (Karasek & Theorell, 1990), engaging in help-seeking may
provide employees with a greater sense of self-efficacy and situational
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control that, in turn, may attenuate the adverse effects of stress on employee
well-being. Alternatively, to the degree that such behavior may redirect the
employee’s attention away from the actual stressor and more toward
problem-focused coping and the support that (idea lly) he/she receives in
response to his/her help requests, help-seeking may decrease the perceived
saliency of the actual stressor (Heaney et al., 1995).
However, it is likely that the primary effects of help-seeking on employee
well-being are related to others’ attempts to accede to such help requests and
provide the requested assistance and, in particular, the beneficial effects that
such helping and support appear to have on employee mental health.
Indeed, there is consistent evidence in the occupational health literature that
social support serves as a critical coping resource and that its provision
(a) plays a critical role in protecting employees from the harmful impact of
stressful job situations (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Viswesvaran,
Sanchez, & Fisher, 1999) and (b) generally enhances employees’ health
and emotional well-being (Antonucci, Fuhrer, & Jackson, 1990; Siebert,
Mutran, & Reitzes, 1999 ). From a resource ecology perspect ive (Hobfoll,
2002), this effect likely stems from the fact that when instrumental or
emotional support is provided in response to a help request, the recipient
experiences a gain in personal resources. Having an enhanced inventory of
resource armamentaria, recipients are likely to be in a better position to not
only cope with and adjust to stressful circumstances (refer Viswesvaran
et al., 1999) but also to reduce their exposure to such circumstances in the
future (Hobfoll, 2002).
Also likely is that informal help-seeking increases the probability of
services utilization and, in particular, the utilization of psychological
services specifically aimed at helping troubled employees such as employee
assistance programs. Indeed, as noted by others, despite the widespread
availability of such program s, utilization of these programs remains quite
low (Bennett & Lehman, 2001), and self-referral to such programs is even
more rare (Milne et al., 1994). Still, both ethnogra phic (Sonnenstuhl, 1996;
Bacharach et al., 1994) and survey (Milne et al., 1994; French, Roman,
Dunlap, & Steele, 1997) research point to the critical role played by
employee perceptions of program accessibility and confidentiality. To the
degree that employees often turn to coworkers for advice on how to handle
a particular problem or need and these coworkers in turn shape their peer’s
impression of the program as a possible source of assistance, as noted
earlier, informal help-seeking and the provision of peer-based referral
assistance are likely to play key roles linking help-seeking to servi ces
utilization and, ideally, problem resolution.
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While the impact of help-seeking on employee well-being is significant in
its own right, it is important to note the possible economic implications of
this linkage to employers as well. Employee physical or mental impairment
is estimated to cost American employers approximately 2.5 billion workda ys
each year (Kessler, Greenberg, Mickelson, Meneades, & Wang, 2001). To
the extent that early intervention may significantly cut the number of
impairment days for many of the conditions examined, the encouragement
of employee help-seeking may have a direct impact on rates of employee
absenteeism and hence on productivity in general. For example, Stewart,
Ricci, Chee, Hahn, and Morganstein (2003) found that not including labor
costs associated with short- and long-term disability, US workers reporting
symptoms of major depression in the previous week cost employers an
estimated $44 billion per year in lost production time, an excess of $31
billion per year compared with peers without depression. Although the
study did not directly examine help-seeking among those with severe
depression symptomology, it did report that less than one-third of those
experiencing major depression symptoms had taken any medication in the
prior 12 months. Moreover, Charbonneau et al. (2005) report that workers
are generally hesitant to seek professional help for such problems,
suggesting the potentially key role that the encouragement of informal,
peer-based help-seeking might play in both helping such workers an d
reducing the associated costs to their employers.
Help-seeking, while relatively unexplored by HR scholars, is by no means a
‘‘foreign’’ concept to HR researchers and practitioners. Indeed, as noted
earlier, recent years have seen a significant growth in the interest of HR
scholars in employee discretionary behavior (i.e., OCB), a large portion of
which is likely driven by help-seeking on the part of these employees’ peers
(Anderson & Williams, 1996; Burke et al., 1976). Similarly, much of the
work of HR practiti oners, be it in the area of career development, training,
employee assistance, or benefits administration is in direct response to
employees’ requests for assistance.
Nevertheless, as evident from the review of the literature presented earlier,
research on help-seeking in organizations in general, and employee help-
seeking in particular, is still in its infancy. Consequently, while social
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psychologists have identified many of the individual-level antecedents of
help-seeking, and epidemiologists and health sociologists have suggested a
number of core processes contributing to an individual’s decision to seek
help for some physical or emotional problem, we still know little about how
organizational and unit-level factors may condition the influence of these
individual factors or independently contrib ute to work-relevant help-seeking
processes or outcomes. Similarly, our knowledge of the direct and indirect
consequences of help-seeking on individual and organizational conse-
quences remains lim ited to a handful of studies focused largely on employee
information-seeking, feedback-seeking, and employee assistance services
Consequently, although my primary intention in this chapter was to
review the current state of knowledge regarding employee help-seeking and
to propose at least one framework according to which research on its
antecedents might proceed, I believe that it is important to also call
attention to some of those help-seeking-related issues for which additional
research may be most pressing. Three of these issue s are theory-related while
the fourth is more methodological in nature.
5.1. Mode as Opposed to Frequency of Help-Seeking
As noted earlier, most of the help-seeking research to date has focused on
those factors influencing whether individuals seek help or how often they do
so. However, as suggested by Nadler (1997), it may also be important to
explain the mode of help-seeking, or in other words, why and how
employees opt for more dependent (as oppos ed to more autonomous help-
seeking), and the consequences of such choices. The distinction between
dependent help-seeking (aimed at immediate problem resolution) and
autonomous help-seeking (aimed at competency development) may be very
relevant to work organizations in that the type of help requested likely
influences the type of help provided (Bamberger & Levi, 2009). And to the
degree that assistance is aimed at solving the recipient’s immediate problem
as opposed to enhancing the recipient’s competencies for the longer term,
the implications on learning and long-term performance may be significant
at the individual, team, unit, and organizational levels. For example, given
the impact of team information elaboration (van Ginkel & van Knippenberg,
2008), team learning (West, 2000), and absorptive capacity (Cohen &
Levinthal, 1990; Huber, 1999) on team performance (Ellis, 2006), the impact
of the type of help team member s seek from one another may have
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particularly salient implications for team performance (Van der Vegt et al.,
Recent research suggests that, at least in work teams, team-based pay
and, in particular, the manner in which this team -based pay is allocated may
have a significant impac t on the type of help sought and provided by team
members (Bamberger & Levi, 2009). Nevertheless, we still know little about
the impact that other HR subsystems and processes such as career
development and performance appraisal systems might have on the type of
help peers request from one another. Similarly, research is needed on the
impact that su ch differential forms of help-seeking might have on
individual, team/unit, and organizational outcomes such as performance
and capacity development.
5.2. Provider Willingness Versus Ability in Sourcing Decisions
A second issue deserving of greater research attention concerns how
individuals make sourcing decisions when seeking help. More specifically,
given that organizational members vary in their level and type of expertise,
just how much peer helping is able to enhance individual and work unit
performance is likely to depend on the degree to which unit members
optimally source assistance from within their organization or work unit
(Nadler et al., 2003; Van der Vegt et al., 2006). That is, assuming that work
units are composed of individuals with varying knowl edge skills and abilities
(KSAs), task performance is likely to be enhanced to the degree that unit
members needing aid source such assistance from those individuals
possessing the greatest knowledge about or experience with the matter of
concern. Yet, as the literature on advice network centrality (Klein, Lim,
Saltz, & Maye r, 2004) suggests, while KSAs do play somewhat of a role in
advice-sourcing decisions, other factors unrelated to the alternative sources ’
relative ability (such as provider’s perceived willing ness; Flynn & Lake,
2008) appear to play a far more significant role.
The fact that unit members may often make their advice-sourcing
decisions on the basis of factors other than the quality of the advice likely to
be received reflects a basic dilem ma in help-seeking. Alt hough researchers
have acknowledged that work units and teams in a variety of contexts such
as software development and surgery may suffer as a result of members’
tendency to sub-optimally source advice from among their colleagues,
this issue has received little direct attention in the organizational and
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psychological literatures (Edm ondson, 2003). Moreover, while research in
the area of demographic diversity suggests that demographic dissimilarity
may be the basis for many sub-optimal help-seeking behaviors (e.g.,
Riordan & Shore, 1997 ; Bacharach et al., 2005), little research has explored
the relationship between such dissimilarity and effective help sou rcing.
5.3. Temporal Aspects: When and How Long before Help is Sought
Third, few studies have examined the temporal aspects of helping, This is
surprising given that as noted earlier, the timing of help-seeking can be
critical. For example, when he lp is sought, particularly for those health-
related problems for which early intervention is key (e.g., breast cancer), it
can mean the difference between life and death. Similarly, whether
employees seek help for a task-related problem (e.g., a loan officer unsure
about how to handle a loan request from a major client having cash flow
problems) when the problem is in its nascent stage or wait until it has
already developed into a more complex and multifaceted issue potentially
affecting multiple organizational units, can have tremendous implications
for a firm’s bottom line.
Our understanding of the temporal implications of help-seeking is limited
primarily to health-related research. Thus, for example, research on help-
seeking for substance abuse problems indicates that individuals often need
to experience significant alcohol-related problems for four or five years
before they are able to overcome denial and seek assistance (Thom, 1986,
1987). While such research suggests time delays in help-seeking can have
significant performance implications for employees, managers, and employ -
ers, research has yet to offer even rough estimates of the financial or cost-
related milestones that need to be met (no less the time that needs to pass)
before employees will seek help for particular types of instrumental
problems experienced at work. In general, the utility-based models of
psychological cost versus instrumental benefit generated by social psychol-
ogists provide a basic framework for identifying what factors are likely to
quicken the pace or serve as obstacles to more rapid help-seeking. However,
this perspective has yet to be translated into a model demonstrating how
particular individual and dyadic characteristics, along with problem
characteristics and situational factors, might influence the amount of time
between problem emergence and actual help-seeking.
Employee Help-Seeking 87
(C) Emerald Group Publishing Limited
5.4. Methodological Challenges
Finally, as noted earlier, much of the research on help-seeking has focused on
one of three types of research methods, namely, (a) student-based laboratory
experiments in which one or two individual, problem-related, or situational
characteristics are manipulated; (b) retrospective, often clinical studies of those
already under care; and (c) cross-sectional studies of individuals’ (often
students’) help-seeking attitudes or intentions to seek help. Each one of these
three approaches has its own particular weakness. For example, while useful in
determining the causal impact of certain antecedents on whether help is
sought, such experimental research is limited in its generalizability to the
workplace in that while workers’ help-seeking is likely influenced by the
dynamics of peer relationships established months if not years earlier, such
dynamics are difficult if not impossible to replicate in a university laboratory.
Similarly, as noted by Grant (1997), retrospective/clinical studies are also often
limited in their external validity in that it is difficult to assume that attitudes,
perceptions, and cognitions of those ultimately seeking help are similar to
those who have yet to do so. Finally, in the case of cross-sectional studies,
questions regarding the causal relations among study variables remain.
In this sense, there is a real need for prospective research in help-seeking in
which the complex ‘‘tango’’ between help-seekers and potential providers can
be monitored and tracked over time. One means of doing this might involve
diary or ‘‘palm’’ studies in which employees are asked at random points of
time during the day to respond to a brief questionnaire (Bolger, Davis, &
Rafaeli, 2003 ). Such an approach may be well-suited for research on instr-
umental help-seeking. However, because employees may be more reluctant to
respond to questions about how they seek help for ego-related or stigmatized
problems, researchers applying such an approach to examine help-seeking for
more emotional concerns may need to first establish their credibility with the
workforce to be studied to reduce the potential risks of sample bias.
Another alternative might be to use a social network approach in which
employees, rather than reporting on their own h