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Sunday, 26 June 2016 11:16

MSU study finds helping out coworkers causes fatigue

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Russell Johnson, Associate professor of management, Michigan State University Russell Johnson, Associate professor of management, Michigan State University Courtesy Photo

A Q&A with Michigan State University’s Russell Johnson

If you’re someone who feels especially compelled to help out your coworkers when they ask for assistance, you may want to rethink always saying yes. New research from Russell Johnson published in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that helping colleagues when they come to you with work-related problems can be mentally draining, especially when you’re acting on multiple requests in a single day. The kicker: The draining effect is worse for people who care the most about the plight of others. Johnson, an associate professor of management at Michigan State University, spoke with MiBiz about his research, its implications and his advice for helpers and help-seekers alike.

If you’re someone who feels especially compelled to help out your coworkers when they ask for assistance, you may want to rethink always saying yes. New research from Russell Johnson published in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that helping colleagues when they come to you with work-related problems can be mentally draining, especially when you’re acting on multiple requests in a single day. The kicker: The draining effect is worse for people who care the most about the plight of others. Johnson, an associate professor of management at Michigan State University, spoke with MiBiz about his research, its implications and his advice for helpers and help-seekers alike.

How come you wanted to do this research? 

There’s a lot of research in the management sciences about the benefits of helping for those that receive the help — the recipients. But no one’s really looked at what about the people that are actually providing help. This is one of the first studies to do that. 

What did you find? 

There’s a potential challenge or cost of helping. When people help, especially when they help a lot on a daily basis, it actually led them to feel more mentally fatigued or depleted at work. 

What causes people who help out to feel that way? 

There are a couple reasons for that. Obviously, the more I help you with your job, that means I’m not focusing on my work. But there’s also other things inherent in helping, when you’re getting interrupted. You have to switch gears, turn off what you were thinking about and orient toward a new problem. You have to take the perspective of the other person in order to understand the difficulty they’re experiencing. If you’re getting asked to help a lot, probably you’re getting a little frustrated and resentful, potentially. … These little activities can really be mentally fatiguing for employees. 

Does it matter how many times someone helps out? 

Kind of like running a marathon, the first couple of miles are not so bad. … The first two or three times that you help on a particular day, that’s not necessarily depleting. It really seems that it’s around more than three (times) when these depleting or fatiguing effects get really bad or accelerate. Going from helping someone eight to nine times is way worse than going from one to two. … But anything beyond that, depletion increases really exponentially. 

Who does this helper fatigue affect the most? 

People (with) pro-social motivation — people that care about the welfare of other folks. … What we found, ironically or paradoxically, is that the depleting effects are especially worse for those that score high on pro-social motivation. … When they’re faced with a help request, it’s really hard for them to say no. … They’re more likely to overextend themselves. They have a sense of duty or obligation to help others when they seek help.

Would it stand to reason that people who help the least are the least depleted? 

Definitely. They could be depleted for other reasons, from other aspects of work. But certainly, those that help less would have more mental energy available to them throughout the work day. 

Taking it to the next level, is this study a prescription for people to just do their jobs and ignore everyone else? 

That’s not the story we want to tell: ‘Screw everyone else, don’t help — be that asshole at work.’ (Laughs.)

Well, besides having to deal with mental fatigue, what’s in it for the people who help? 

On the one hand, helping is depleting, but we did find that when the person providing the help felt like was it impactful or that it mattered to the other person, it rejuvenated or replenished them. It matters when the person being helped expresses gratitude for that help. If I help someone and I see that, hey, it actually mattered, it’s not so bad. 

Can people do anything to alleviate the draining effects of helping others? 

Even taking something as simple as a five or 10 minute work break … can be helpful. Taking a short nap, going out for lunch and not talking about work things — those kind of mental breaks or respites from work, or even stimulants like coffee — those are the things that the helpers can do. 

What advice do you have for people who feel compelled to help out in the workplace? 

Continue to do so. Part of the battle is being aware that this does take a toll or exert a tax from you in terms of your mental energy. If you had two or three subordinates or coworkers that came and asked for help, maybe after that, it would be a good time to take that break or a little respite. Maybe get a coffee from Starbucks or Biggby or wherever as a way to compensate for that. … Maybe you want to be more strategic. If you’re getting bombarded, sometimes it’s OK to say no. 

Similarly, what should people who ask for help consider? 

‘Do I really need to ask for help for this or is this something where if I dug for it, will I find the answer?’ Then you’re not draining someone else by bothering them for help, and it’s a pretty well-known fact that if you look up an answer and figure out a problem on your own, you learn from that. … If you’re a new employee, you might be in a position where you have to ask for help a lot, but don’t go to same person all the time. Spread out the pain, in other words. And make sure that you express your gratitude. … Demonstrate to the helper that it was beneficial to you. If they know they had a positive impact, then it doesn’t feel as fatiguing or depleting for them. 

Read 1060 times Last modified on Friday, 24 June 2016 14:51

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