If there’s one good metaphor for the importance of self-care, it’s the emergency instructions given on an aeroplane: Secure your own oxygen mask before helping anybody else with theirs.
The logic behind this directive makes obvious sense — but it’s not always so easy to put into practice. Attending to your own needs first — before attending to your family’s or your coworkers’ — feels selfish, and even shameful.
But if recent research is any indication, it’s worth sitting with that temporary discomfort. In the long run, giving at the expense of your own health and happiness can hurt your chances of success.
In an article for 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 we take a good thing too far: when we’re overly burdened by helping others.
The article stems from yet-unpublished research that Grant and Rebele have conducted, which found that selflessness at work can backfire. To illustrate this effect, the authors invite readers to answer a multiple-choice question they posed to hundreds of teachers in the US:
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?
- Schedule a separate after-school session to help Juan, so you can better understand his individual needs.
- Invite Juan to sit in on your geometry sessions with Alex.
- 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.
- Tell Alex that Juan should ask his own teacher for help.
Personally, I was stumped when I saw the answer choices; specifically, I was stuck between answers (a) and (b). Answer (a) seemed like the “right” thing, the nice thing to do, but answer (b) seemed more realistic.
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 say they saw these findings replicated across a wide range of professions they studied.
These findings add to research by Grant, which he outlined in his 2013 book “Give and Take“: Generous people tend to be more successful than selfish people, but only if they find effective, or self-protective, ways of giving.
One such strategy is called “chunking”: You deliberately schedule time in your calendar for helping others, instead of letting people pop in and request your help at any moment, even when you’re working on something else important.
Another strategy, which Rebele outlines in a chapter of the 2015 book “Flourishing in Life, Work and Careers,” is asking for help when you need it. Think of it, Rebele writes, as giving others the opportunity to reap the rewards of giving by doing us a favour.
Bottom line: Giving without limits isn’t beneficial for anyone. Your best bet is to find ways to help others without depleting your own resources.
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