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Why Being a Team Player Isn't Always Smart

Why Being a Team Player Isn't Always Smart
Credit: 5 second Studio/Shutterstock

Helping out your colleagues too much could be putting your own career in jeopardy, a new study found.

Recently published research in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed that helping co-workers not only hurts an employee's job performance, but also often leads to mental and emotional exhaustion. This is particularly true for workers who care deeply about the happiness of others, the study found.

"Somewhat ironically, the draining effects of helping are worse for employees who have high prosocial motivation," Russell Johnson, one of the study's authors and an associate professor at Michigan State University, said in a statement. "When these folks are asked for help, they feel a strong obligation to provide help, which can be especially taxing."

For the study, employees in a variety of industries — including finance, engineering and health care — completed surveys in the morning and afternoon for 15 consecutive days. The surveys measured depletion using a previously established scientific scale. They measured helping through another scale that used questions and statements such as "Today, I went out of my way to help co-workers who asked for my help with work-related problems."

The results showed that employees should be careful when deciding to assist co-workers, because, in the end, doing so may leave the helpers worn out and not as successful with their own work. [See Related Story: Could Co-Workers Give Better Reviews Than Bosses?]

"Helping co-workers can be draining for the helpers, especially for employees who help a lot," Johnson said.

The researchers suggested that when employees are asked to help out a lot, they should focus on trying to boost their energy by making the most use of their breaks and upping their caffeine intake.

It is also important for those asking for help to realize the potential burden they are putting on their peers by seeking this assistance, the researchers said.

"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's authors wrote.

One way to make the situation a little better is by thanking co-workers for their help. The research discovered that thanking helpers for their assistance can minimize or in some cases even reverse the effects of mental and emotional depletion.

"Thus, help seekers can reduce the burden they place on helpers by clearly expressing the positive impact that helping had on them," the study's authors wrote.

The study was co-authored by Mo Wang, a professor at the University of Florida, and Klodiana Lanaj, an assistant professor at the University of Florida.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.