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When was the last time you felt fully recovered from your stressful work environment? Job demands are higher than ever and with increased work speed, job insecurity, and complex work environments the pressure is on for employees.
Organizations are aiming to support their staff’s work recovery by providing free gym memberships and massages – economist Milton Friedman’s phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” comes to mind.
But there is more to work recovery than hitting the gym for an hour. The latest scientific findings in the field of Positive Psychology indicate that there are five fundamental elements which (ideally in combination) promote completely winding down from stressful work.
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Stress and Lack of Recovery
We feel stressed when we feel unable to cope with the demand being placed on us. However, stress is not necessarily bad for us. As long as we manage to recover after a stressful period, there is little harm in feeling stressed. Persistent coping with acute and chronic stressors, however, leads to wear and tear on the body (the so-called allostatic load) and can have a profound impact on health.
Chronic stress (and in particular lack of recovery from it) can accelerate disease processes and lead to chronic illnesses. It is a paradoxical fact that the physical reaction to stress is supposed to protect our health, yet these reactions themselves can be harmful (McEwen & Lasley, 2002). So, stress is not harmful per se, but failure to recover properly is.
A Model for Work Recovery
What do you do to recover from a stressful workday? Recovery strategies vary, some of them are more active, such as playing sports, while others are rather passive, like watching television. According to the DRAMMA Model proposed by Newman, Tay & Diener (2014), there are two basic areas of recovery:
⇒ Prevention (demand reduction)
⇒ Promotion (resource gain)
Both need to be addressed for employees to properly unwind. Within these two areas the following five elements promote work recovery and support subjective well-being:
Here is how you make the most of each of the five elements.
Time away from work is essential for recovery, especially when we manage to cognitively switch off. Ideally, leisure activities should not draw on the same resources used during work in order to maximize recovery. Therefore, hairdressers cutting their friend’s hair in the evenings or tax agents spending weekends filing their friend’s tax reports will not reach the same level of recovery during their work break despite the fact that they may voluntarily engage in these activities (especially if they do not enjoy doing them).
The same is the case if you find yourself ruminating about work during your time off. In order to maximize recovery, you need to be able to psychologically detach from work and concentrate on something different.
So, make sure your leisure activities help you to disengage from work-related matters. Activities can take the shape of sleeping, watching TV or lying on the beach. But you may find it easier to detach after a busy workday by engaging in arousal seeking behavior or a hobby which demands your full attention such as playing soccer, painting or salsa dancing.
Whether you recover well during leisure time has a lot to do with whether you feel you get to do your own thing. Research shows that independence and self-direction are important factors when it comes to well-being. Say you find yourself running from soccer practice at the local club (of which you are a loyal member) to meeting a friend (who has just lost his job) and then rush home to babysit your children (while your wife takes evening classes at university).
While all these activities may be voluntary engagements, chances are you will not feel particularly recharged at the end of the evening. What counts is how you feel about the activities you engage in. If they feel like an obligation you miss out on an important element for well-being: the sense of designing your time autonomously.
The freedom of autonomous leisure decisions is beneficial because it is based on intrinsic motivation which is a key ingredient for well-being. Only if you feel in charge of designing at least part of your leisure time autonomously, will you get the maximum recovery from the activities you perform.
If this speaks to you, try these two autonomy hacks:
- Think of reasons why you are grateful for the activities you engage in. For instance, if you have to walk your dog (and you would much rather watch something on TV), think of the good memories you have with your dog. Remember how much fun this little creature brings to your life and how fortunate you are to be able to have a dog. Be grateful for your buddy. Gratitude leads to positive emotions and increases well-being (B. Fredrickson, 2003). While you will have to leave the house rather than sit on the couch, you will be more intrinsically motivated to do so and feel more autonomy.
- One of today’s phenomena is that our leisure time is jam-packed with activities. Despite the fact that we have chosen to do these activities, the sheer number of events and the lack of free time may leave us feeling imprisoned by our calendar. To free up time, you should book “Me Time” in your calendar. This will make it easier to refuse invitations and allows you to choose how you would like to spend the time when it arrives. You may still end up doing something you would normally do, but you will feel more in charge of having made that decision autonomously.
Mastery occurs when you use your skills to overcome a challenge and as a result experience development and growth. One of the most important concepts in Positive Psychology related to mastery is the concept of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). Flow is what you experience as a result of an appropriate balance of challenge and skill.
Too much challenge results in stress, too little in boredom. But the right balance provides a flow state which is characterized by a feeling of being completely absorbed in the activity and forgetting about time. Mastery is an important component of work recovery. Serious involvement of effort, skill, and commitment provides greater well-being and life satisfaction.
When do you experience flow at work or in your life? Why not try something new such as learning a new language or taking a class in your favorite subject?
Positive Psychology enthusiasts know that meaning is an important element for successful work recovery since it is also an important component of well-being. Engaging in activities which provide a purpose in life has been found to reduce negative emotions, provide a sense of tranquility and peace of mind, affirm self-worth and facilitate growth and development.
Hence, finding purpose in the way we spend our leisure time encourages relaxation. Are you yet to find hobbies which provide you with a sense of purpose? Or is it a matter of looking at the activities you engage in and realizing the purpose they provide?
Connecting with others is one of the most important aspects of life and is linked with higher subjective well-being as it is one of our basic human needs (B. L. Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). Spending your leisure time with friends encourages positive emotions and ultimately improves well-being. This is especially true during times when you feel so stressed that you do not have the energy to catch up with friends. According to Freudenberger and North’s 12 phase Burnout Model withdrawing from social connections is a typical sign of stress-induced depression and actually aggravates it (Freudenberger & North, 1992).
On the other hand, friends can be a great source for some lighthearted fun. When was the last time you engaged in an activity involving play? Sliding down a snowy hill in a toboggan or dressing up for a themed party brings out the child in us. According to Transactional Analysis, it is through the inner child that we bond best with others. Research has found that play raises self-esteem, boosts confidence in decision-making and increases openness to new experiences (Newman, et al., 2014).
A Take Home Message
Clearly, there is more to work recovery than putting your feet outside the office. If you find yourself ruminating about work during your leisure time, you may want to engage in activities which demand full involvement and require skill, effort, and commitment as they change your focus and will help you to take your mind off work.
If you feel that you lack the energy to go out and meet friends or go jogging after a long day of work, think again. While it does take an effort to leave the house again (and relaxing on the couch can be a very effective recovery tool), remember that being active and connecting with others are great sources of energy and will leave you feeling better afterward.
However, if you are feeling like a puppet on a string long after you’ve left the office, you will need to find the time to do your own thing. You can raise this topic with your loved ones and discuss the options. Good communication is key.
Only if you take good care of yourself and switch off properly from work, can you continue to perform at your best and look after others as well.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York: Penguin Books.
- Fredrickson, B. (2003). The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology is comming to understand why it's good to feel good. American Scientist, 91(July-August), 330-335.
- Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. [Article]. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678
- Freudenberger, H., & North, G. (1992). Burnout bei Frauen. Über das Gefühl des Ausgebranntseins. Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag.
- McEwen, B. S., & Lasley, E. (2002). The End of Stress As We Know It. New York: Dana Press.
- Newman, D. B., Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2014). Leisure and subjective well-being: A model of psychological mechanisms as mediating factors. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15(3), 555-578.