Imagine a busy day at work. One of your coworkers walks over to your office and asks for your help — he is struggling to understand some financial projections. You put aside what you’re doing and spend the next 45 minutes helping him sort through the formulas and numbers. He leaves your office with a better understanding of the projections.
How would you feel after this interaction? Happy that you helped a coworker in need? Worried that this interruption interfered with your own work? Tired because you spent mental energy working through his problem? Most of the published research on helping suggests that you would feel happy and energized. My personal experiences (and, I am guessing, yours) tend to be mixed.
Indeed, my recent research suggests that responding to help requests at work is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, helping coworkers in need is energizing and replenishing, particularly when that help is perceived as beneficial to coworkers — in other words, when you can see that your help has actually made a positive difference. On the other hand, helping coworkers in need drains the helper’s cognitive and emotional resources, leaving them too tired and depleted to perform subsequent work tasks.
These insights are informed by work that my coauthors and I published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. We surveyed 68 managerial and professional employees every day for 15 consecutive workdays. We asked these employees to report how many times they responded to help requests from coworkers that day at work and whether their help had been beneficial to those they helped. We also measured their level of energy throughout the day. 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.
Interestingly, we found that responding to many help requests was particularly problematic for prosocial employees, people who value helping others and who help on a regular basis. Perhaps because helping others is so important to their sense of self, prosocial employees devote more time and cognitive resources to helping others. Thus, the high-quality help that prosocial employees tend to provide seems to come at a higher cost for them — they feel more depleted and derive less replenishment even when their help is beneficial to coworkers.
My coauthors and I find similar results in another study published in the Academy of Management Journal. We surveyed 82 employees from various organizations multiple times a day for 10 consecutive workdays. We found that daily helping had both positive and negative consequences for helpers. Helping was associated with positive emotions, which then enhanced helpers’ sense of energy as well as their satisfaction and commitment to work that day. At the same time, helping interfered with helpers’ own progress at work, depleted their inner resources, and hurt their job satisfaction and commitment. The positive effects of helping were more pronounced for people who are risk seeking, enjoy challenging themselves, and are motivated by the possibility of reward, whereas the negative effects of helping were more pronounced for people who are risk averse, prefer avoiding mistakes, and are motivated by preventing harm.
In light of these novel findings, what are the takeaways for helpers and help-seekers?
First, it is important to recognize that, in addition to positive effects, helping has negative effects that may persist for hours or days for the helper. In the first study I show that the depleting effects of helping were stronger than the replenishing effects.
Second, on days when helpers feel depleted from helping, they can resort to short-term solutions to restore their energy. For example, research suggests that taking breaks, napping, andand consuming caffeinemay be short-term solutions for depleted helpers.
Third, whereas refusing to help may constitute a social faux pas, agreeing to help at a future and more opportune time for the helper is appropriate. Thus, when possible, helpers may be better served if they help at the end of their workday or workweek, or after they have accomplished important goals of their own.
Help-seekers can play an important role in lessening the costs of helping in several ways.
First, help-seekers ought to be aware of the harmful effects that responding to help requests has on helpers and should avoid seeking help from the same person multiple times a day.
Second, help-seekers may be better served if they search for solutions by first consulting resources such as manuals and websites. Doing so is likely to improve their self-efficacy and learning while safeguarding helpers’ time and resources.
Third, help-seekers can facilitate the replenishing effects of helping by expressing gratitude and by explaining to helpers how their actions benefited help-seekers’ work and day. While saying “thank you” may sound obvious, we’re less likely to express thanks at work than anywhere else. Expressed gratitude boosts helpers’ affective resources and may offset some of the depleting effects of helping.
In sum, providing help is without doubt a critical behavior in every workplace. It is important, however, to remember that it comes with a cost.