You arrive at work and one of your coworkers immediately stops and asks if you can help them with a project. If you say “yes,” you might be making a mistake, according to a study from Michigan State University. Assisting coworkers in the morning can lead to bad behavior in the afternoon, and that can create a toxic work environment, says Russell Johnson, lead researcher and associate professor of management in MSU’s Broad College of Business.
“Helping in the morning leads people to feel depleted or mentally fatigued in the afternoon, which then leads to them helping less in the afternoon,” he says. “They switched from being other-oriented in the morning to being selfish in the afternoon.”
And that includes doing some self-serving behaviors. You might be tempted to take credit for someone else’s ideas, badmouth a coworker in front of your supervisor to improve your own standing, hoard company resources, equipment, or information, or show favoritism toward those who can potentially benefit you, says Johnson.
“Any behavior that unfairly props oneself up while at the same time disadvantaging others,” he says.
Working remotely brings additional challenge to helping coworkers in the morning. “It might in fact be even more depleting or fatiguing because the nonverbal cues and feedback from the help recipient are missing,” says Johnson. “Communication is easier and more efficient when done face to face, because nonverbal cues convey useful information. Thus, helpers must expend even more cognitive resources to make sense of the situation, without the aid of nonverbal cues from the help recipient.”
What If You Can’t Say “No”?
If saying “no” or “not now” isn’t an option, you can avoid the negative consequences by taking a break immediately after helping. “When employees feel mentally fatigued or depleted, it has repeatedly been shown that they can recoup their cognitive or attentional resources by psychologically disengaging from work for a period of time,” says Johnson. “By not thinking about work, people feel more replenished or refreshed when they resume or re-engage with their job.”
But be careful. “If I have lunch with work colleagues and spend the period talking about work, I won’t feel replenished,” adds Johnson. “If, on the other hand, I spend it with work colleagues but we talk about non-work issues, such as family, sports, or entertainment, then the lunch period will be cognitively replenishing.”
Even a five-minute break can help. Johnson suggests taking a quick walk or bike ride to disengage. “The five minutes of ‘lost’ time that is taken for this activity will be more than made up for by the gains in performance and cooperation afterwards,” says Johnson. “When I am feeling mentally fatigued, I leave my office, pop in my headphones, and listen to music while I take a short walk. I come back feeling great afterward.”
What Leaders Can Do
If breaks aren’t possible, managers should make sure they encourage proper separation from work once employees return home. “They can start by not assigning ‘homework’ and by not emailing or texting employees in their off-hours,” says Johnson. Research has found that working at night from home can disrupt sleep and make employees feel disengaged.
“It is possible to delay the delivery of emails and messages so that they go out early the next morning, rather than at the end of the day or in the evening when the supervisor actually composes the message,” says Johnson. “That way, employees will not feel any undue pressure to respond or deal with work in their off hours.”
Managers should structure their own workday so that cognitively demanding activities that include helping coworkers are separated by less demanding activities and breaks. For example, providing feedback, especially if it’s negative, is a very challenging and demanding activity, says Johnson. Managers should schedule performance reviews over a few days, with breaks between sessions.
“Otherwise the feelings of mental fatigue build up and, before you know it, the depleted manager will be engaging in selfish and interpersonally destructive acts directed at others, such as verbal abuse, discounting, and blaming,” he says.