Helping needy coworkers can be exhausting

Helping your coworkers too often can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion and may even hurt your job performance, a new study suggests.

These depletion effects are especially strong for employees with high “pro-social motivation”—those who care deeply about the welfare of others.

While previous research on helping has focused largely on the effects of the beneficiaries, this is one of the first studies to focus on the helpers.

“Helping co-workers can be draining for the helpers, especially for employees who help a lot,” says Russell Johnson, associate professor of management at Michigan State University. “Somewhat ironically, the draining effects of helping are worse for employees who have high pro-social motivation. When these folks are asked for help, they feel a strong obligation to provide help, which can be especially taxing.”

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For a new study, 68 employees in a variety of industries, including finance, engineering, and health care, filled out surveys in the morning and afternoon for 15 consecutive workdays. The surveys measured depletion using a previously established scientific scale and helping through another scale that asks questions such as “Today, I went out of my way to help co-workers who asked for my help with work-related problems.”

The findings, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggest employees should exercise caution when agreeing to help because helping may leave them depleted and less effective at work. On days when employees find themselves engaging in unusually high amounts of helping, a strategic use of breaks, naps, and stimulants like caffeine may be a way to bolster energy.

Help-seekers, on the other hand, should realize that asking for help, especially multiples times a day, has detrimental effects on the employees who are helping.

“This is not to say that coworkers should avoid seeking help, but that they ought to consider the magnitude and solvability of the issue before doing so and avoid continually seeking help from the same person,” the study says.

On the bright side, thanking helpers are making them aware of the positive results of their actions, can minimize and even reverse the effects of depletion. “Thus, help-seekers can reduce the burden they place on helpers by clearly expressing the positive impact that helping had on them,” the authors write.

Other researchers from Michigan State and from the University of Florida are coauthors of the study.

Source: Michigan State University

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Source: Futurity