Study: Helping coworkers can increase mental exhaustion, create toxic workplace

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Stopping by your colleague’s desk to help them when you’re already tired can actually increase mental exhaustion and lead to an afternoon filled with negative behavior that can affect other coworkers, a new study finds.

Researchers say that focusing on one’s own work in the morning can help avoid feelings of exhaustion and tiredness that are only exacerbated by helping fellow employees in the office complete their tasks before one’s own. The Michigan State University study determined that negative behaviors worsen as the day goes on when people don’t focus on their own work first thing in the morning.

“The increase in mental fatigue from helping coworkers in the morning led employees to reduce their helping behaviors in the afternoon and, perhaps more interestingly, they engaged in more self-serving political behaviors in the afternoon as well,” says Russell Johnson, associate professor of management in MSU’s Broad College of Business, in a university press release. “They switched from being other-oriented in the morning to being selfish in the afternoon.”

Several past studies have analyzed the beneficiaries of such workplace assistance, but this study building off last year’s “Helping Co-Workers Can Wear You Out” findings (also co-authored by Johnson), is one of the first to focus on the helpers. The latest experiment analyzed 91 full-time employees over 10 consecutive workdays as they filled out separate surveys in the morning and afternoon of each day. This study focused on the downside of office politics versus the “dark side” of helping others analyzed in the previous research.

Helping coworkers while tired can increase exhaustion and create a toxic workplace, a new study finds.
Helping coworkers while tired can increase exhaustion and create a toxic workplace, a new study finds.

The researchers say helping others can cause an increase in political behavior that may harm others in addition to harming the well-being of the helper themselves. Last year’s findings also suggested that “employees should exercise caution when agreeing to help because helping may leave them depleted and less effective at work.” The study co-authors cautioned that employees who are seeking help from others should consider the detrimental effects helpers may develop as a result of problems being too large or potentially unsolvable.

“Although we did not identify the consequences of these political behaviors, research has established that political acts from employees can culminate into a toxic work environment with negative well-being and performance consequences,” write the study co-authors.

The authors note that the findings are not suggesting people don’t help their colleagues with various tasks. Instead, they say discretion should be shown when arriving at work already tired or mentally fatigued. They also suggest employers offer work breaks and lunch periods if and when coworkers are helping others. If breaks aren’t possible, managers should allow and encourage employees to separate from their work once they leave the office.

“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 co-authors wrote in last year’s findings.

The 2016 findings also explains that when helpers are thanked or made aware of the positive results of their actions this can eliminate or even reverse feelings of depletion throughout the day.

Johnson’s study was co-authored by Allison Gabriel from the University of Arizona, Joel Koopman from Texas A&M University and Christopher Rosen from the University of Arkansas and appears in the online journal Personnel Psychology.

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