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A productive and harmonious office where everyone is committed to making life easier for one another is a dream workplace for many. However, researchers found that selflessness at work can lead to exhaustion and often hurts the very people you want to help.
In an article published in The Harvard Business Review, Wharton professor Adam Grant and Wharton People Analytics researcher Reb Rebele, describe a phenomenon they call “generosity burnout”, which happens when people become overly burdened by helping others.
To illustrate this effect, the authors studied people in a wide range of jobs. In a recent study, the researchers asked more than 400 school teachers a series of questions about their approach to helping.
Here’s a sample question: “Imagine that you’re teaching a geometry class, and you’ve volunteered to stay after school one day a week to help one of your students, Alex, improve his understanding of geometry. He asks if you’ll also help his friend Juan, who isn’t in your class. What would you do?
a. Schedule a separate after-school session to help Juan, so you can better understand his individual needs.
b. Invite Juan to sit in on your geometry sessions with Alex.
c. Tell Alex that it’s nice that he wants to help Juan, but he really needs to focus on his own work in order to catch up.
d. Tell Alex that Juan should ask his own teacher for help.”
The authors had teachers review a bunch of scenarios like these and, as it turns out, the more often teachers chose answers like (a), the worse their students performed on academic achievement tests. That’s because answer (a) is what the authors call a “selfless” response while (b) is more of a “self-protective” behaviour.
The authors write:
“Selfless educators exhausted themselves trying to help everyone with every request. They were willing to work nights and weekends to assist students with problems, colleagues with lesson plans, and principals with administrative duties.
Despite their best intentions, these teachers were inadvertently hurting the very students they wanted to help.”
The authors noted that a similar trend was observed across a wide range of professions they studied.
While they agree that generous “givers” tend to be more successful than selfish people, it is worth noting that giving without limits isn’t beneficial for anyone.
In his book “Give and Take”, Grant writes how generous people can still offer help while preventing themselves from burnout. He advised to designate times in your schedule for helping others, instead of having people pop in to request help at any moment.
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