Psychologist Jacinta Jiménez, PsyD, vice president of coach innovation at virtual coaching platform BetterUp, calls this tendency boundary-less helping—or, saying “yes” to requests for help in a way that negates your work-life boundaries. “When it comes to altruism in the workplace, finding the right balance is key,” she says. “While helping others can elicit a ‘helper’s high,’ where you get this rush of feel-good neurotransmitters afterward, if you’re helping without boundaries, you can end up with a ‘helper’s hangover’ instead, where you feel overwhelmed, have less energy, and experience compassion fatigue toward your colleagues.”
“If you’re helping without boundaries, you can end up with a ‘helper’s hangover,’ where you feel overwhelmed, have less energy, and experience compassion fatigue.” —Jacinta Jiménez, PsyD, psychologist
Over time, this may just mean you become less and less likely to be empathetic toward colleagues who are asking for help, as you field more and more requests, says Dr. Jiménez. The result? Ironically, your capacity to help drops amid your impending burnout, and you’re left feeling disconnected from the colleagues whom you’d be better off befriending.
What boundary-less helping looks like in the workplace
This specific brand of unhelpful helping comes in two shades, according to Dr. Jiménez: helping indiscriminately and helping at the expense of yourself.
“In the case of the former, you’re just responding, ‘Oh, sure’ or ‘Yeah, okay’ to everything that comes your way without much regard for the nature of the request itself,” she says. Typically, this creates such a backlog of work—both yours and that of others—that you can’t help but become exhausted to the point of feeling disconnected from your colleagues.
And in the case of the latter, you’re actively sacrificing yourself, your resources, or your time in order to help, says Dr. Jiménez. “As a result, your key initiatives or your priorities to shine as an employee start to get compromised because of the helping that you’re doing,” she says.
By contrast, effective helping in the workplace looks like taking on opportunities to help that are aligned with your values (say, agreeing to take on an additional client whose work you genuinely love) or your strengths (like volunteering to take notes if you’re highly organized), says Dr. Jiménez. It also looks like considering your current workload, time, and resources ahead of agreeing to a new request for help, and passing whenever it would require you to exceed your bandwidth, she adds. Only in cases where the help you’re giving fits into the above guidelines can you expect it to be a worthwhile endeavor—for both you and the colleague on the receiving end of it.
Why boundary-less altruism at work can leave you feeling disconnected from colleagues
If you’re the regular workplace helper, chances are, you have really good intentions. “This is often the person who wants to show up in a big way for their colleagues during tough times, or, perhaps, this is the new person who really wants to prove their worthiness to the team,” says Dr. Jiménez. But no matter the situation or your intentions, when you give beyond your capacity, you’re kicking off a downward spiral toward resenting your colleagues.
At first, boundary-less giving can give way to energy depletion, decreased ability to focus, and difficulty with emotion management, says Dr. Jiménez. In that state, it's tough to view your coworkers from a compassionate, empathetic lens, she adds. And that’s where resentment starts to brew, leaving you feeling disconnected from the colleagues whom you sought to help.
Not only does that resentment dampen workplace morale, but also, it can lower levels of trust throughout your team. “Your coworkers may become afraid to ask for help from you, which can restrict openness and communication, or they might feel like they can’t trust you to actually help with something because you’re so overcommitted with other things,” says Dr. Jiménez. Once trust is lost, especially in remote and hybrid work environments, it’s really hard to build the kind of collaborative team spirit and psychological safety necessary for everyone to thrive, she adds.
How to avoid the trap of over-helping at work
“Wanting to be kind and engaging in compassion does not mean you have to drop everything every time you're asked to help,” says Dr. Jiménez. “Acting with compassion does not equal selflessness.” It’s quite the opposite, in fact: In order to show compassion and offer assistance at work in a way that’s sustainable, you need to protect yourself and your time, too. “This way, you can really be present for others and actually help more efficiently,” says Dr. Jiménez.
“Even if it feels uncomfortable to say, ‘Hey, I can’t commit to this,’ that’s a better choice than pushing past your boundaries to help out.” —Dr. Jiménez
This requires prioritizing requests for help based on meaningfulness, importance, and how many other commitments are already on your list, which will ultimately mean turning down certain requests. “Even if it feels uncomfortable to say, ‘Hey, I can’t commit to this,’ that’s a better choice than pushing past your boundaries to help out,” says Dr. Jiménez. “It might start a difficult conversation in the short-term, but that still beats long-term resentment.”
To navigate that boundary conversation effectively, consider the fact that your answer to any request doesn’t just have to be a “yes” or “no.” “There are so many beautiful ways that people can talk about commitments or giving, perhaps by saying, ‘Oh, I have this meeting or responsibility here, but I can commit to this [different version of the request]. Would that work for you?’” says Dr. Jiménez. “You can negotiate and find a happy medium.”
With this kind of helping, you’re setting yourself up for that helper’s high—the release of feel-good neurotransmitters that comes with doing something good for someone else—and you’re also strengthening the relationships you have with your coworkers. “The people around you can then trust that you’re going to come through on your commitments,” says Dr. Jiménez, “which fosters a culture of integrity that allows the whole team to feel closer.”
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