Brain Drain: Good Intentions in Morning Can Trigger Bad Consequences by Afternoon

By Tiffani Sherman
September 18, 2017

A study shows that people who help co-workers early in the day deplete mental resources, which can affect behavior and job performance.

If you’re asking for help, you might want to do so in the morning. If you’re giving help, spreading it throughout your day is healthier. Doing these things could make you a better leader by keeping you from getting mentally fatigued.

russell johnson

Russell Johnson, who authored the study, says leaders are responsible for many activities and tasks, "so it’s good to spread them around” to avoid becoming mentally fatigued. | Broad College of Business at Michigan State University

“The body is almost like a machine with fuel, and any task depletes some of that fuel,” says Russell Johnson, associate professor of management at the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

People have a certain amount of attentional resources available to them on any given day, he says, and using too many at a time can deplete them quickly, leading to negative consequences.

“Uncivil and aggressive behaviors are more likely when people are operating when they feel mentally fatigued,” Johnson says.

Johnson is the author on a study published in Personal Psychology that looked at 91 full-time employees during a period of 10 consecutive days. The results showed helping co-workers in the morning could use too many resources, leaving the tank running on empty.

“When someone engaged in more helping behaviors in the morning, they engaged in less helping behaviors in the afternoon,” Johnson says. “The more you help in the morning, that leads to more fatigue around noontime, and because of that fatigue, people are less helpful and more selfish in the afternoon.”

He adds that mental fatigue is not the same as physical fatigue and therefore is not dependent on sleep.

There are two kinds of help, Johnson says. One is proactive where a leader goes out and offers help without a request for it, which is kind of the micromanaging way of doing things. Then there is reactive help where someone comes to a boss with a problem and the boss offers help.

 “It’s much easier to help someone who comes to you with a specific request,” Johnson says. “Be more reactive; it may be good to step back and let people come to you.”

 So, what’s a boss to do when a workday is at least eight hours long?

 “Giving feedback or having someone learn a new [medical] procedure would be better during the day when they have more attentional resources,” Johnson says.

So, schedule that skills lab or performance review in the morning, when both parties involved are likely to have more fuel available. If things need to be done in the afternoon, allow subordinates to take a quick break before beginning. They are less likely to have a negative reaction if they have had a chance to recharge a bit.

“As a leader, you have many activities and tasks you’re in charge of, so it’s good to spread them around,” Johnson says.

It also helps to think of helping others as a way to a longer-term goal, Johnson says. For example, when a resident keeps coming to a physician leader with a lot of questions, thinking about the long-term benefits of making that person a better doctor will keep the leader from getting fatigued. If the leader keeps looking at each question as an interruption, selfish behaviors may happen, especially as a day wears on, he says.

“How you think about some of this can help mitigate how fatiguing it is,” he says.

Johnson is quick to point out he is not advocating that people not help each other.

“Don’t help too much. Be aware of how much you’re doing and don’t lose sight of your own work,” he says. “Obviously, we want people to help, but at the same time, what can we do to mitigate these side effects? Awareness is the key to this, knowing that this happens puts people in the position of better coping with it.”

Tiffani Sherman is a freelance writer based in Florida.

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