Switching Off: Recovering After A Long Day At The Desk
Updated: May 1
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
What will you do this evening? Keep working? Watch a movie? Drink seven glasses of wine?
What you do tonight, and every work evening, affects your mental health. This is because work requires energy, and you need to replenish the energy and resources you have used at work. This process is referred to as recovery.
Check out your own recovery with this quick quiz, based on Sonnentag & Fritz's (2007) Recovery Experience Measure:
In a typical evening after work, how many of these apply to you?
- I forget about work
- I distance myself from work
- I take time for leisure
- I do non-work things that challenge me
- I learn new things outside of work
- I feel like I can decide my own schedule
- I feel I can decide for myself what I want to do
For anyone answering NO to four of more of these questions… you could well be vulnerable to longer-term burnout.
What steps can you take to improve your recovery?
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that physical exercise and a good night’s sleep are two very important determinants of effective recovery.
There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence about the value of exercise for mental health and recovery.
Intervention studies, for example, show that increasing your exercise reduces your anxiety and depression (Rebar et al., 2015) and helps you get over burnout more quickly (Toker & Biron, 2012). See this useful guidance from the World Health Organization.
Likewise, poor sleep is negative for your well-being. For example, one study showed that sleep duration of less than six hours per night predicted the development of clinical burnout over a two-years (Söderström et al., 2012). A meta analysis has shown if you experience insomnia, you have more than two-fold risk of developing depression than persons who sleep well (Baglioni et al., 2011).
Good sleep is a protective factor that helps to reduce the risk of impaired well-being.
Sleep hygiene is essential and that means no mobile phones under your pillow! For tips on getting a good nights sleep, check out this resource from Better Health Victoria.
As to other activities that help, the key is to focus on how you feel when you are doing the activity (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007). There are two especially important questions you can ask yourself about your evening activity:
Question 1: Am I mentally detaching?
Researchers often use a design where they measure your feelings and behaviors in the day, in the evening, and then in the morning. From these sorts of studies, the best predictor of your next day recovery, such as feeling relaxed, has been shown to be whether you have mentally disconnected from work.
If you are discussing with your partner at length all the things that have gone wrong that day at work, this is not detaching. If you are on your mobile phone or doing your emails, this is also not detaching, and will be negative for recovery (Park et al., 2011).
Mentally detaching is just about ‘not working’ in the evening, but also not thinking about work.
And in particular, the sort of thinking that is especially bad for detaching is ruminating about negative aspects of work or worrying about work issues (in fact, pondering a interesting work-related problem or thinking positively about work tends to be okay in terms of recovery; see Weigelt et al., 2019).
For workaholics, who find it hard to detach, research shows that physical exercise is an especially important way to recover (Bakker et al., 2013).
So, whether you are watching Married at First Sight, going for a jog, or having dinner with friends, try to mentally detach from work in the evening. This advice might not sound like rocket science – but are you doing it?
Question 2: Am I learning something that’s different to what I do at work?
I find it hard to detach from work - unless I’m actively focusing on something else. Swimming helps me to detach because I’m trying to learn to become a better swimmer. The whole time I swim, I’m thinking about lifting my elbow high, and rotating, and breathing properly. It actually doesn’t matter in the scheme of things whether I become a good swimmer – but trying to get better at it gives me something to think about other than work, and actually getting better gives me a sense of achievement and mastery.
Research supports the idea that learning something new, or mastering a skill, in a domain outside of work promotes recovery (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007).
In fact, some of our own research shows that if you engage in an activity in which you feel like you are learning new skills in the evening, you will feel more enthusiastic and confident the next day, and hence you are more likely to be proactive and self-starting in your work (Ouyang et al., 2019).
If you are someone who struggles to detach, perhaps its time to learn a new skill. Tango lessons anyone?
Two further important questions to ask to assess whether the activities you are doing in the evening will foster recovery are ‘do I feel relaxed?’ and ‘do I feel in control of my activities?’ Both of these feelings – when experienced during evening activities - foster next day recovery.
The Recovery Paradox
The recommendation to “recover” from your work might sound pretty straightforward. But there is an important contradiction here to consider.
The recovery paradox (Sonnentag, 2018) is that if you have a super-demanding day or job, you are most in need of recovery because your resources will be run down. And yet you are also less likely to engage in recovery activities.
For example, studies show that when people experience a high level of stressful job demands, they detach less from their jobs (Wendsche & Lohmann-Haislah, 2017), they do less physical exercise and sport (Stults-Kolehmainen & Sinha, 2014), and they have worse sleep (Litwiller et al., 2017). It seems that interpersonal conflicts or problems, as well as threats to a person’s self-esteem (e.g., poor performance) especially increase the chance of sleep disturbances (Brisette & Cohen, 2002; Pereira et al., 2014).
It is perhaps not very surprising that recovery is impaired in you’re in a demanding job - if you have high work load and time pressure, then you might be inclined to work at night to cope with the load, which means you don’t switch off and you don’t go out and learn new activities, or do exercise, so you don’t properly recover, which will impair your sleep, and make you more tired the next day, and so the wheel of exhaustion gets going. I’m going to tackle how you might reduce your work demands in another blog as its too big a topic to cover here.
For now, if you have very high demands in your job, remember that for you, recovery is even more important and necessary for your mental health. So beware the recovery paradox and make recovery a priority for you.
Maybe tonight is a good night to start – get off your laptop and watch a movie, go for a walk in this beautiful autumn evening, or master a new skill.
Baglioni, C., Battagliese, G., Feige, B., Spiegelhalder, K., Nissen, C., Voderholzer, U., Lombardo, C., & Riemann, D. (2011). Insomnia as a predictor of depression: A meta-analytic evaluation of longitudinal epidemiological studies. Journal of Affective Disorders, 135(1), 10-19. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2011.01.011
Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., Oerlemans, W., & Sonnentag, S. (2013). Workaholism and daily recovery: A day reconstruction study of leisure activities. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34(1), 87-107. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.1796
Brissette, I., & Cohen, S. (2002). The Contribution of Individual Differences in Hostility to the Associations between Daily Interpersonal Conflict, Affect, and Sleep. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(9), 1265-1274. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672022812011
Litwiller, B., Snyder, L. A., Taylor, W. D., & Steele, L. M. (2017). The relationship between sleep and work: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(4), 682-699. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000169
Ouyang, K., Cheng, B. H., Lam, W., & Parker, S. K. (2019). Enjoy your evening, be proactive tomorrow: How off-job experiences shape daily proactivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(8), 1003-1019. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000391
Park, Y., Fritz, C., & Jex, S. M. (2011). Relationships between work-home segmentation and psychological detachment from work: the role of communication technology use at home. Journal of occupational health psychology, 16(4), 457.
Pereira, D., Meier, L. L., & Elfering, A. (2013). Short-term Effects of Social Exclusion at Work and Worries on Sleep. Stress and Health, 29(3), 240-252. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2461
Rebar, A. L., Stanton, R., Geard, D., Short, C., Duncan, M. J., & Vandelanotte, C. (2015). A meta-meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 366-378. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2015.1022901
Söderström, M., Jeding, K., Ekstedt, M., Perski, A., & Åkerstedt, T. (2012). Insufficient sleep predicts clinical burnout. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17(2), 175-183. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027518
Sonnentag, S. (2018). The recovery paradox: Portraying the complex interplay between job stressors, lack of recovery, and poor well-being. Research in Organizational Behavior, 38, 169-185. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2018.11.002
Sonnentag, S., & Fritz, C. (2007). The Recovery Experience Questionnaire: Development and validation of a measure for assessing recuperation and unwinding from work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12(3), 204-221. https://doi.org/10.1037/1076-89126.96.36.199
Stults-Kolehmainen, M. A., Bartholomew, J. B., & Sinha, R. (2014). Chronic Psychological Stress Impairs Recovery of Muscular Function and Somatic Sensations Over a 96-Hour Period. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(7), 2007-2017. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000335
Toker, S., & Biron, M. (2012). Job burnout and depression: Unraveling their temporal relationship and considering the role of physical activity [doi:10.1037/a0026914]. American Psychological Association.
Weigelt, O., Syrek, C. J., Schmitt, A., & Urbach, T. (2019). Finding peace of mind when there still is so much left undone—A diary study on how job stress, competence need satisfaction, and proactive work behavior contribute to work-related rumination during the weekend. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 24(3), 373-386. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000117
Wendsche, J., & Lohmann-Haislah, A. (2017). A Meta-Analysis on Antecedents and Outcomes of Detachment from Work [Review]. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(2072). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02072