Imagine that you recently started a role as a new manager. After a few months on the job, one of your direct reports stops by for a chat. You’re not sure what he needs at first but as the conversation progresses you quickly realize that this is about a personal issue. He shares that he’s the primary caretaker of his elderly parents, he finds the responsibility overwhelming, and he’s saddened to see their health deteriorate. He wishes he knew how to manage the situation better and how to be more present in their lives. “Do you have any advice for me?” he asks, visibly upset.
How do you think this encounter would make you feel? Our study suggests that you would likely feel a mixture of distress, sadness, and nervousness — and be less engaged at work that day.
Leaders help with personal problems on a regular basis at work. In fact, some studies have suggested that leaders in certain industries spend as much as 2.5 hours each week responding to such requests from people they manage. These issues run the gamut from problems with marriages to mental health to child care.
Given how much time most of us spend at work, it’s not surprising that employees occasionally disclose personal issues to their leaders. And people tend to approach their leaders more often than they approach their other coworkers because many believe that it is the leader’s responsibility to assist with emotional issues at work. What is surprising, however, is how little we know about how responding to these requests affects leaders’ mood and performance at work.
To investigate this, we conducted a longitudinal study of leaders and what we call their “followers,” also known as direct reports. We recently published our findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology. We surveyed 43 middle and senior leaders and up to five of their followers each day for three consecutive work weeks. We asked the leaders to report on their mood (positive and negative affect) at the beginning and end of each workday. Leaders also reported how often they responded to requests for support from their direct reports that day at work. We focused on two types of requests: work-related and personal. At the end of each workday, we also asked up to five employees to rate their leaders’ work engagement — how devoted and immersed their leader was that day at work.
We found that leaders’ negative mood increased on days when they helped direct reports with personal problems. This is likely because personal issues, such as the hypothetical one described above, are often uncomfortable, sensitive, and even distressing. They create an emotional burden: when employees share personal hardships, leaders pick up on their negative emotions through emotional contagion. Because personal issues are non-work related, leaders may also find these help requests to be disruptive or inappropriate and therefore further upsetting.
We also found that helping employees with personal issues was particularly detrimental to a leader’s mood on days when they were also helping employees with work-related issues. On busy days, it can be particularly frustrating for leaders to have additional, and often unanticipated, demands on their time, and they reported more negative emotions on these days. But there was a silver lining. On days when leaders felt that their support with personal issues had a positive impact on the lives of their employees, their negative mood was less impacted. Feelings of prosocial impact, in fact, enhanced leaders’ positive mood.
Interestingly, leaders with many years of managerial experience were not as distressed by the time they spent helping employees with personal problems compared to inexperienced leaders. This may be because seasoned managers are likely to have dealt with many of these kinds of requests and, as a result, may have developed the skills and confidence to manage them properly.
A more in-depth look at our data revealed that employees didn’t seem to value their leader’s support on personal issues as much as on work-related issues. Whereas work-related helping improved employees’ ratings of their leaders’ work engagement that day at work, personal helping did not. In fact, on days when a leader helped with personal issues, their employees rated their level of work engagement lower despite the leader’s help with work-related issues. This surprising effect may be because most personal helping happens behind closed doors, leaving less time and capacity for leaders to also provide high-quality, work-related help to other people.
What does this mean for managers who want to help — and for employees who are looking for support?
For managers: Recognize that helping employees with personal issues may put you in a bad mood. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help, of course, but you need to be aware of the potential impact on your performance and emotions. And because negative emotions are sticky, the impact may not be limited to work but could bleed into your personal life as well. If you’re an inexperienced leader, you need to be particularly careful about agreeing to help with personal issues, especially if you haven’t yet developed the skills required to handle a variety of uncomfortable issues at work.
One way to possibly lessen that impact is to ask if your help was beneficial. The knowledge that you helped may protect and even improve your mood. For particularly distressing personal issues, and if your employees are open to this, it may also be wise to refer struggling employees to professional counselors in the company or outside, especially if you don’t feel qualified to help. Both you and your employees may be better off in the long run.
For employees seeking personal help: You also need to be aware of the potential consequences and the impact your request may have on your manager’s mood and performance. And be mindful of making these requests of an inexperienced leader. Again, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask but try to approach leaders with personal help requests on days when they aren’t particularly busy because, as we found in this study, their mood and performance are less likely to be harmed on those days. Be sure to express gratitude when receiving help from leaders because doing so may protect their mood. Unfortunately, many of us undervalue the benefits of saying thank you but research has shown that expressions of gratitude are likely beneficial for the wellbeing of everyone involved.
Being a leader can be challenging and stressful, and it’s emotionally taxing to assist people with personal issues especially when you are barely keeping up with your work responsibilities. Our research shows that you can help but it’s important to strategically choose when and how you do.