The emotional budget

Facial expressions

Can keeping your feelings in check at work affect the amount of help you give your co-workers?

A new study by a research group that includes Pamplin management associate professor Daniel Beal suggests that the more you try to control your emotional expressions at work, the less likely you would be to help your colleagues.

Daniel Beal
Daniel Beal says his research suggests that people can manage their emotions more efficiently and effectively by thinking about the events of their day differently.

“There might not, at first glance, seem to be a connection between helping co-workers throughout the workday — what researchers long-windedly call ‘individually-directed organizational citizenship behaviors’ — and hiding or faking emotions, or ‘surface acting,’” Beal says.

“But let’s think about why people choose to help or not help their co-workers. In many, if not most workplaces, time spent helping co-workers implies time away from one’s core tasks. Yet, it’s also clear that helping others is not only appreciated by most managers but also creates more productive organizations.”

As a result, he says, employees face something of a quandary every day: “I’d like to help, but I also don’t want to shirk my own duties.”

A rainy day fund for workplace sympathy

Most people aim for a balance — sometimes offering help and sometimes focusing on their own work. A key factor directing this decision, Beal says, is whether employees are depleted or exhausted.

“Mental or emotional exhaustion is known to lead to flagging effort, difficulty maintaining attention, and a general loss of self-control.”

Research has demonstrated that people will anticipate these effects, he says, and try to conserve their mental resources for the more important tasks ahead. “We therefore reasoned that as people became mentally exhausted at work, they would save their remaining resources for core tasks, at the expense of helping co-workers.”

The cost of a happy face

As for the link to emotion control, Beal says researchers have increasingly focused on its role as a primary contributor to exhaustion at work.

“Most jobs require frequent, if not constant, interaction with other people throughout each day. Most jobs also require that our emotional expressions in these interactions meet certain requirements. Typically, these ‘display rules’ — which are firmly embedded in our society and organizations — consist of appearing courteous, kind, friendly, helpful, and generally happy.”

Employees can be exhausted by this kind of emotional labor by the end of the day, Beal says.

“If you try hard to meet these display rules, particularly when you’re not in a terribly good mood, you can get burned out very quickly. In addition, there’s some evidence that this sort of emotional control is even harder and more exhausting for people who are already chronically burned out by their work — making them even less likely to help.”

Perspective produces positivity

What can we do about it?

Beal says his group’s research focused on better strategies for both controlling emotions and managing resources throughout the day.

“You can be more effective and efficient in emotion regulation by thinking about the events of your day differently. If you are feeling irritable, instead of pasting on a smile, think about ways to improve your mood,” he says.

“If you deal with people all day long, try considering the perspective of your co-workers, clients, customers, or supervisors in a way that generates realistic but sympathetic reactions.

If Cheryl’s being a little aggressive today, for example, try thinking about why she is feeling that way instead of simply returning her hostility or avoiding her.

You don’t have to play therapist for your office. Even if you’re just thinking about it more positively, you’ll feel better than you would otherwise. As a result, it'll be easier to interact not just with Cheryl but probably everyone else around you.”

A case for coffee breaks

As for managing resources, Beal says his research underscores the effectiveness of taking micro-breaks.

“Throughout the day, take a few minutes away from work to do something that you want to do. Although taking the break itself is important, what you do during the break is every bit as important.”

His group’s research demonstrates that having choice over these activities, whatever they happen to be, is a big factor, he says.

“It’s actually okay for you to continue to work over your breaks, as long as you really want to be working. As most of us often work during our breaks more because we feel we need to than because we want to, continuing to work usually provides little in the way of recovery.

In contrast, although we often prefer to relax or socialize, these activities will only allow us to recover if we really want to be doing them.”

Beal’s co-authored study, “Too Drained to Help: A Resource Depletion Perspective on Daily Interpersonal Citizenship Behaviors,” was published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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