Helping Your Co-Workers Might Be Wearing You Out

New research says it might be time to set some boundaries.

woman-sleeping-work-files
Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images

When it comes to helping others in the workplace, you might assume that it can only improve your reputation and make everyone’s work life easier. But all that people-pleasing might come with a downside. New research from Michigan State University suggests that those who are quick to help others in the workplace may be more emotionally exhausted and can experience negative effects on their own job performance. The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers surveyed 68 people in various fields, including finance, healthcare, and engineering—they filled out questionnaires in the mornings and afternoons for 15 consecutive workdays. They found that study participants with “pro-social motivation” (in other words, they care deeply about the welfare of others) actually experienced more draining effects from helping others.

"Helping co-workers can be draining for the helpers, especially for employees who help a lot," Russell Johnson, associate professor of management at MSU, said in a statement. "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."

That’s not to say you should stop helping your coworkers entirely. Researchers noted that the strategic use of breaks, naps, and caffeine can help to energize workplace helpers on days with particularly needy coworkers. And like pretty much anything, lending a helping hand is best done in moderation.

The study also emphasized that the people seeking help from others can do their part by showing appreciation and reinforcing the positive impact of the assistance—and recognizing when they’re asking for too much.

So next time you’re overloaded at work and someone asks for a favor, consider the impact it might have on your own mental health or your ability to tackle that ever-growing to-do list. Sometimes saying “no” is completely OK—here’s how you can even do it politely.