The hidden costs of helping a colleague at work

helping-colleagueAs regular readers of this blog can attest, I’m something of a fan of helping ones colleagues as much as possible, and promote an open and willing approach to knowledge sharing.

Indeed, I’ve covered a number of studies that explored the benefits of this outside of the obvious advantages for innovation.  For instance, one study from Yale found that when we help other people, it has distinct advantages for our stress levels.

“Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves,” the authors say. “Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.”

What’s more, a second study found that when we help others, it becomes easier for us to then accept help ourselves.

The costs of collaboration

That isn’t to say that helping our peers is cost free however, as a study that is soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology reveals.  It says that whilst helping our colleagues can help reduce stress levels, it can also lead to both mental and emotional tiredness, which has a knock-on effect on our work.  This was particularly pronounced for those who cared about the welfare of others.

“Helping co-workers can be draining for the helpers, especially for employees who help a lot,” the authors say. “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.”

Of course, this isn’t to say that sharing knowledge and collaborating with your peers is a bad thing, not at all, merely that we should be wary of doing so too much and thus leaving us ill-equipped to do our own work.

Forewarned is forearmed

So, for instance, if you find yourself low on energy, it might be best to put off helping your colleagues until you have higher reserves.  Likewise, if you find yourself doing a lot of helping, you could take steps to replenish your energy levels by maybe taking a break or having a large coffee.

Similarly, when we ask for help from others, it is worth considering that our requests do not come without a cost and that making those requests at particular times may be detrimental.

“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 says.

To end on a positive note, the study also found that thanking our colleague for the help they’ve given can be arguably the best way to buffer any mental depletion we may have caused them, as making them aware of the positive outcome of their actions was a distinct boost to energy and morale.  So whatever you do, make sure you show your appreciation.


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