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When Helping is Hurting: The Negative Impact of Mental Fatigue

When Helping is Hurting: The Negative Impact of Mental Fatigue
Credit: RawPixel/Shutterstock

A work team that relies on one another for support is often more cohesive and productive than those with isolated members. However, helping others can become detrimental if the team member offering help is at the end of their own rope.

New research from Michigan State University suggests that helping others at work can contribute to mental fatigue and stress, especially when that help is offered in the morning hours. Later in the day, that stress can manifest itself through selfish behaviors, as if to make up for the earlier selflessness.

"The increase in mental fatigue from helping coworkers in the morning led employees to reduce their helping behaviors in the afternoon and, perhaps more interestingly, they engaged in more self-serving political behaviors in the afternoon as well," Russell Johnson, associate professor of management in MSU’s Broad College of Business, said in a statement. "They switched from being other-oriented in the morning to being selfish in the afternoon."

When self-serving political behavior increases, so too does toxicity in the work environment. Jealousy and distrust increase, which ultimately hurts efforts to bind a team closer together.

"Although we did not identify the consequences of these political behaviors, research has established that political acts from employees can culminate into a toxic work environment with negative well-being and performance consequences," Johnson said.

None of this is to say workers shouldn't help one another at all. Helping, especially in the form of altruistic assistance, can be a great way to show commitment and solidarity in the workplace. However, when employees are feeling run down and stressed they should consider their own self-care before stretching themselves even thinner.

If stress and mental fatigue become problematic, the researchers suggested employers offer additional work breaks or lunch periods to help them recover. When additional breaks aren't possible, researchers suggest that employers promote a greater degree of work-life separation.

The research draws on observations of 91 full time employees throughout 10 consecutive workdays. The study appears online in the journal Personnel Psychology. Johnson’s co-authors are Allison Gabriel from the University of Arizona, Joel Koopman from Texas A&M University and Christopher Rosen from the University of Arkansas.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam C. Uzialko, a New Jersey native, graduated from Rutgers University in 2014 with a degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies. In addition to his full-time position at Business News Daily and Business.com, Adam freelances for a variety of outlets. An indispensable ally of the feline race, Adam is owned by four lovely cats.