Helping Co-workers in the Morning May Make You More Selfish Later

It may seem counterintuitive, but refusing to help a co-worker in the morning could be beneficial. Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

"Sure, I'll help you" is usually an encouraged sentiment in the workplace. Motivational mottos on office walls and screensavers promoting themes of courtesy and teamwork are the norm. But even if your co-worker is your bestie, you may want to think twice before lending a helping hand.

A recent study published in the journal Personnel Psychology found that offering co-workers help in the morning actually depletes your mental state, so by the afternoon, it's every person for themselves. The researchers drew from "ego depletion theory," which posits that people's mental resources can suffer so much from draining willpower that they begin losing self-control.

The initial survey sent to participants featured prevention-focused questions, including ones regarding anxiety about falling short of work responsibilities and obligations, and about the prior night's sleep quality — questions that may cause type A personalities to hyperventilate! (Employees who are prevention-focused place importance on avoiding losses or failures and emphasize safety.) The survey also assessed political skill, or peoples' level of intuition or savvy in how to present themselves to others in the workplace. From those participants, a final sample of 91 full-time staff members were given two surveys a day for 10 consecutive workdays that measured helping acts (e.g., volunteering to help others), depletion (e.g., feeling emotionally drained) and political acts (e.g., winning the approval of supervisors).

The eager beavers who helped co-workers during the first part of the day became less willing to help others as the day progressed, likely due to mental depletion. In fact, they became more self-serving, which could be harmful to colleagues. While the questions in the survey did not target levels or types of helping, researchers did form their concepts around organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) that support proper functioning in social and psychological environments. It's basically a fancy term for going above and beyond at the office. Granted, there are benefits to OCBs, including favorable performance reviews, better work attitudes and, yep, even help from co-workers.

While the research team agrees that more work is needed to identify workplace depletion experiences, like mental and emotional exhaustion, they do offer a great tip. Employees arriving at work already feeling "depleted" may be better off helping themselves, or taking full advantage of any available breaks.

So, if insufficient sleep is your modus operandi, just take a snooze on answering your co-worker's cubicle cry for assistance. You — and your colleagues — will be glad you did.