Being Helpful at Work Can Make You Worse at Your Job

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One of the simplest strategies for making new work friends, if that’s your thing: Be helpful. The one thing you’re all guaranteed to have in common is work, so offering to pitch in on a project or show a newbie the ropes feels like a natural segue into bonding. At any rate, it’s definitely more natural than stilted “How ’bout this weather?” conversations by the coffee machine.

But in a recent column in Harvard Business Review, University of Florida business professor Klodiana Lanaj outlined a major downside to this approach: Helping out your colleagues is exhausting. In two recently published studies, Lanaj wrote, she and her colleagues discovered that helpfulness at work is something of a tightrope walk: It can boost your energy, but it can also leave you feeling depleted.

In the first study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers followed 68 workers over the course of three weeks, asking them to record any time a co-worker approached them for help and whether they accepted, as well as how their energy fluctuated over the course of the day. Here’s how Lanaj described the findings:

We found that, similar to running the first few miles of a long race, responding to one or two help requests was not particularly energy-sapping on a given day for helpers. However, as with running a full marathon, responding to numerous help requests was increasingly depleting for employees. Energy depletion manifests itself as reduced willpower and ability to focus, manage emotions, or persist at difficult tasks. Helping multiple times a day left employees depleted until the next morning, even though they rested that night.

In the second study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, they administered similar surveys to 82 workers over two weeks. This time around, they drilled down on the feelings that being helpful caused, with mixed results: “Helping was associated with positive emotions, which then enhanced helpers’ sense of energy as well as their satisfaction and commitment to work that day,” she wrote, but “at the same time, helping interfered with helpers’ own progress at work, depleted their inner resources, and hurt their job satisfaction and commitment.”

In other words: You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. On the one hand, conserving your mental energy is a sensible instinct; on the other hand, no one wants to be the office jerk. Perhaps helping, like everything else, is best done in moderation — and deployed strategically.