Health & Wellness

Helping needy co-workers can really take a toll on your mental health

Here’s one more peril of the modern, understaffed workplace: Helping your co-workers can leave you drained, exhausted and mess up your own projects, especially if you’re the type who wants to help, researchers found.

“Help requests interrupt people’s sense of flow or ‘being in the zone’ at work,” Russell E. Johnson, the study coauthor and an associate professor of management at Michigan State University, told TODAY.

“Switching gears like this can be difficult. … As it turns out, being helpful, fair, charismatic can be quite challenging.”

Constantly being asked to help other employees is a reality for many people as businesses save money on hiring and training workers.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found the more help requests workers deal with, the faster they feel depleted. The “magic number” of requests seems to be around two to three in a day — anything beyond that starts to have a negative impact, Johnson said.

Related: Study says workplace stress is as bad as secondhand smoke

Constantly being asked to help other employees — a reality for many people as businesses save money on hiring and training workers — can lead to mental fatigue, and feelings of frustration and resentment.

That’s because helping someone is a complex psychological act, it turns out. In addition to dealing with being interrupted, you have to take the perspective of the other person to better understand where they are coming from.

You also have to control any negative emotions that bubble up. So you may be thinking, “I learned how to do my job, so why do you need so much help doing yours?” but you try not to let those feelings come across. All of that can be very mentally draining and ultimately hurt the performance of the helper, Johnson said.

Related: Unhappy at work? Try these simple practices to turn it around

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It’s especially taxing on “prosocial employees” — those who truly care about the well-being of others, the study found. They not only feel a duty to help, but want to do it diligently and effectively, investing lots of energy into pitching in and putting other people’s interests above their own.

“They are prone to give 120 percent effort, thus overextending themselves,” Johnson said.

“They find it difficult to say ‘no’ to help requests, and feel that they are obligated to respond to such requests. Whenever people act based on a strong sense of obligation, it is almost as if they feel forced to do the activity.”

Why don’t bosses and needy co-workers get it?

People aren’t always good at taking the perspective of others, Johnson said. When we ask for help, we’re focused on how we benefit from it rather than how it may be taxing for the helper. Plus, the people who seek help the most often don’t provide much help themselves, so they have no clue about the costs of helping.

For the study, researchers recruited 68 people who held a variety of jobs, from financial analyst to risk examiner. They then checked in with them twice every day — in the morning and in the afternoon — for three weeks, asking them how many times they helped a co-worker that day and how they felt about it.

Here are five of Johnson's tips for dealing with help requests at work:

How to handle help requests:

1. Sometimes it pays to be strategic and simply say “no”

Decline the request in a polite, fair way.

You might explain, for example, why you can’t help at that moment. Explanations go a long way towards maintaining good working relationships.

2. Suggest another person to seek help from, ideally someone who you know is not depleted herself

Direct the help seeker to a source that contains the answer, like a website, employee handbook or equipment manual.

3. Use cues to indicate whether it’s OK to ask for help or not

Keeping an office door closed, for example, lets others know you’re doing something that can’t be interrupted.

4. Fight mental fatigue by taking mental health breaks

Even five minutes can help replenish you. Take a five-minute walk outside or away from your work station; hang out with co-workers without discussing work; take a short nap if your employer allows it. Stimulants like caffeine can also help counteract depletion in the short term.

Related: 17 exceptionally easy ways to relax — from people who know how to chill

How to ask for help:

5. Really take a step back and ask yourself if your request is truly needed

“Many employees ask for help without even trying to solve the problem themselves. In this way, asking for help could be construed as being somewhat abusive towards other people’s time and energy,” Johnson said.

6. Try harder to solve the issue yourself rather than seeking help

7. Always express your gratitude and appreciation to the person who helped you

When people believe the help they gave was beneficial to the other person, they don’t feel so depleted.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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