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Helping Your Coworkers Too Much Turns You Into a Selfish Employee

As you amble into your office on this dreary Monday, bleary-eyed and anxious after the weekend, you might want to think twice before you help Karen fix the Keurig, teach Mike how to make pivot tables (again) or send Tim the office memo from last week when he could easily just dig it out of his email archives.

Goddamn it, Tim!

A new study finds that helping your colleagues in the morning leaves you feeling mentally and emotionally drained, and leads to selfish behavior in the afternoon. And an office full of self-serving employees does not a happy work environment make.

“It takes effort and energy to help others,” says Russell Johnson, professor of management at Michigan State University and lead author of the study. “On mornings when employees help people more than they normally would, they feel depleted [after].”

Their selfish behavior afterward is a somewhat natural evolutionary response in the face of diminished resources. When resources are aplenty, people share them more willingly. But when resources are scarce, people enter “self-preservation” mode, Johnson explains, hoarding more for themselves out of a survival instinct. In the case of mental and emotional energy in the office, that means neglecting coworkers and focusing more on your own work.

Similarly, helping a coworker requires empathizing with their situation and problem, and that mental task can linger in your mind long after you’re done with your workplace assist.

The findings suggest that people in supposedly friendly, high-morale offices all secretly resent one another, and that they’d be better off throwing in their earbuds and not interacting with their needy colleagues throughout the workday.

Johnson, however, says that shouldn’t be the takeaway. Helping people may leave you burned out in the short-term, but consistently helping others actually lifts your spirits in the long-term. The key is to monitor your energy level, and dole out help only when you can spare it, he says.

And if you’re feeling tired, he suggests taking a quick walk, which increasingly seems to be the cure for all our workplace woes.