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Nicole Klemp

If I learned anything from my favorite neighbor, Mister Rogers, it was that it’s very important to be generous and helpful. And generosity isn’t just instilled in us as preschoolers; we’re told throughout our adult lives that to be a good teammate/parent/leader, we must give our time liberally, and put others’ needs before our own. But what happens when all that giving starts to become too much?

In their recent Big Idea series, Harvard Business Review (HBR) explored the idea that giving too much at work can affect us negatively, and can ultimately lead to exhaustion and burnout. Through their research, authors Adam Grant and Reb Rebele found that the more times people responded to help requests from colleagues, the more their energy was depleted, and they were less able to focus on their own work.

Generosity burnout can happen to anyone, but there are some personality traits that put certain people at a higher risk. Grant and Rebele put workers into four categories on the generosity spectrum:

  1. Takers — Just as you’d expect, takers are the lowest on the generosity spectrum, and are constantly draining the time of others.
  2. Matchers — Expect reciprocation and equal time to be given and received with matchers. They treat help at work more transactionally, and trade favors evenly.
  3. Self-protective givers — Think of them as givers with a caveat; they’re generous, but with limits. Self-protective givers are helpful, but know when to say no.
  4. Selfless givers — The workers most at risk for generosity burnout are known as selfless givers. They show more concern for others’ needs over their own, and have a hard time setting boundaries.

Thanks for your help; here’s more work

Givers can be very valuable employees, as they’re always helping make those around them better, or picking up the slack for their teams. Givers in leadership positions are often referred to as “servant leaders,” and praised for their altruism. “Their genuine inclination to help others progress and to freely share expertise can lead to wins in today’s collaborative, networked organizations,” wrote Curt Nickisch. “As a result, givers are asked to join more teams and projects. Often that pattern repeats itself at home, where spouses, family members, and friends return to the well of the giver’s generosity.”

While there are many benefits to being a giver (and this is certainly not meant to be a diatribe on generosity), the constant giving of one’s time and energy can become too much — causing that “well” of generosity to dry up, and burnout to set in. Employees who are known for lending a hand often find themselves being “rewarded” with more and more requests for help. The burnout that results from this constant barrage of emails and ad-hoc requests — usually from takers —  can cause workers to become disengaged and overwhelmed. It can even negatively affect their personal lives: Sorry, sweetie. I can’t make your t-ball game; I have to help Bob get these TPS reports out.

Collaboration and teamwork are valued components of a good work enviroment. But when that threshold between being helpful and being overwhelmed is crossed, it can be detrimental to the Worker Experience (WX). Employees who are constantly over-extending themselves (whether it’s their own fault or not) often associate their bad experiences with the job itself, causing them to leave.

Be generous, but protect your time

Sarah Robb O’Hagan, former president of Gatorade and Equinox, blames the generosity burnout phenomenon on our constantly plugged-in world. She told HBR, “Somewhere in the last 10 years, the floodgates have opened. Just because everyone can ask for something doesn’t mean that it’s productive for you to respond.”

Grant and Rebele discovered that the most effective contributors in the organizations they studied were the ones that protect their time — they’re generous, but willing to say no when they need to accomplish their own goals. “As giving aligns with your interests and skills, it becomes less stressful for you and more valuable to others. Rather than feeling pressured to help, you’re choosing to help, which is good for your motivation, your creativity, and your well-being. Instead of being known as a jack-of-all-trades, you’re seen as a master of a few.”

You’re invited

If topics like this interest you (or you’re suffering from generosity burnout and just need a little break from work), you should definitely join us on the Appirio Worker Experience Tour. It’s back for 2017 and coming to a city near you. Hear from industry experts and top business leaders, see the latest and greatest enterprise technology demos, and get the facts about the true ROI of investing in the Worker Experience — straight from the analysts at Forrester Research.

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