Jennifer Newman: Giving more at work (voluntarily) can be healthy

A study published this month in the Journal of Applied Psychology found there can be a benefit to workers' well-being when they take on extra work voluntarily.

New research suggests that those who take on extra tasks at work voluntarily can benefit

Recent research in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows contributing more than asked at work is related to increases in worker well-being. (Getty Images/Caiaimage)

Going the extra mile at work can be rewarding, and can actually be good for one's well-being, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to talk about a study published this month in the Journal of Applied Psychology that found that those who take on voluntary tasks at work can actually feel energized and lively as a result.

Rick Cluff: When we talk about going the extra mile at work, what does that mean?

Jennifer Newman: Organizational psychologists define it as choosing to do helpful things for your employer that you aren't required to do. So, it's doing things that aren't in your job description, but you are helping the organization just the same. It can be things like giving up your time to help a co-worker on their project, or, caring about a coworker when you are under your own stress. It can also be remaining courteous when someone is trying your patience. Sometimes it's offering ideas to improve the functioning of the organization, or taking action if you see something going sideways but it's not really up to you and you just intervene.

What is the effect on workers of extending this kind of extra effort?

It's mixed. Some find it creates overload, stress and interferes with their home life, and there's fatigue and burnout that can occur.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

But others get a lot of meaning from the extra work they do. They feel energized, lively and alert as a result. These feelings are experienced at the end of the workday, so they actually take energy home with them. It varies widely depending on your role and the kind of work environment you are in.

So, what makes the difference?

Workers who benefit psychologically from extending themselves tend to have more control over the extra duties they do. If you work in a place where there's pressure to be seen going above and beyond the call of duty, you are more likely to feel tapped out. If it's not truly voluntary and you don't feel free to give extra help, you're more likely to feel stressed. If it becomes expected for you to take on more and more, that's probably going to be depleting. It's called job creep -— doing more and more outside what you were initially hired to do.

When you're seen by your colleagues as a [suck-up], does that take a toll?

If there's a kind of a work culture where doing a little bit extra is seen as trying to cosy up to the boss, yes that's going to be problematic. But this isn't about [suck-up]. It's not beneficial to you psychologically if your purpose of being seen going the extra mile is for promotional reasons.

What's going on for those peppy-people who get energy from going beyond the call of duty?

They feel like when they give more to the organization, it's a real choice. It's not taken for granted the worker will keep doing that particular thing. If you do something like helping out a colleague, it's appreciated. There's a lot of gratitude expressed. They get positive feedback from supervisors and peers, and they get praise from customers. And, they feel like their job and their effort is important and that it matters.

A really important distinction is they feel like they are getting their work done and can give a bit more. Also, they aren't being forced to impress anyone by doing more. The workers who are de-energized by it feel they aren't performing their core tasks well, and now they have a bunch more to do. Workers who feel like they are performing well at work and then voluntarily add a bit extra, benefit the most.

There's a culture now in the business world where you're paid for 40 hours, but expected to work 50 or 60. Is that going the extra mile or is that just slave labour?

What you have you to do in those situations is think about if from the point of view of boundary procedures. You can't always say no unfortunately because you might end up jeopardizing your job if that's where you're wanting to stay for a while. So boundary procedures are ways to earmark that.

Do you have any advice for workers in roles where doing extra is expected?

One of the things I say about these boundary procedures is that if you do find that you're getting extra work and is actually become part of your job description — that job creep we talked about — try and get it back in control. If it's part of another worker's duties try to give it back to them, and if your boss is running by you giving you last minute chores, that's when you should say, 'Okay, that sounds good, when can we meet to talk more about what you want me to do?'

Then at that meeting you can ask, 'What is the task? How long would you like me to spend on it?  When would you like it done by?' and 'When can I check-in with my progress on this?'

I worked with somebody who did this, and the boss ended up slowing down and rethinking what they were just piling on. Sometimes it's just bosses running a mile a minute, and the extra work is given out last minute and isn't very well planned.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist says going the extra mile at work can be healthy — as long as it's voluntary


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