Helping Co-Workers Can Negatively Affect Job Performance, Study Shows, So Here's When To Say "No"

It can feel good to be the office point person, the one people come to when they need advice on an issue at work, but a new study warns that expending valuable time and energy constantly helping co-workers may be bad for you. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, focuses on both the costs and benefits of helping out at work. Of course we all want to aid people where we can and create a supportive work environment, but researchers found that too many requests for help may leave the helper drained emotionally and mentally. The interruption of their flow and being forced to refocus may deplete the helper, their good intentions making them less productive overall.

Feeling competent and valued by work associates is wonderful, but they may be taking advantage of your generous nature without even realizing it. Empathetic people who care about the wellbeing of others have a "pro-social motivation," and end up feeling the most depleted when it's time to pack up for the day, says Russell E. Johnson, the study’s co-author and associate professor of management at Michigan State University.

"Helping co-workers can be draining for the helpers, especially for employees who help a lot," Johnson told Phys.org. "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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"No" is a hard word for some people to utter, and asking for help may put these people in a difficult psychological situation. They may be too busy to explain how to crop an image on Photoshop, but feel internally forced to do so, and may end up resenting the person who asked for help (and having to hide those feelings the rest of the day). Phew! Talk about office drama.

While the predominance of past research has focused on the benefits of helping others, this study sought to do things a little differently. Researchers asked 68 employees from diverse fields to fill out surveys twice daily for 15 consecutive workdays. The employees marked down in the morning and afternoon how much they had helped co-workers and how they felt about it. Their level of depletion was then measured through a scientific scale. Researchers found that people could easily field two or three help requests a day, but any more could negatively affect their performance at work.

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"This is not to say that co-workers 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 clarifies. In other words, if the problem you are struggling with can be Googled, perhaps start there before asking a co-worker. And if you find yourself asking for help around the office, be sure that you display gratitude with a big ol' "thank you."

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