Working Smarter

The Science of Work Recovery: How to Leave Work Stress at Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IN THE BEST stress management advice ever delivered in a pop song, Paul McCartney gave it a good try. Though tens of millions heard his plea, few “let it be.”

McCartney had it exactly right. So much angst in life has to do with the inability of the brain to let go of things. A schnauzer or a tabby is adept at this, dropping a stressful moment like it never happened. Humans, unfortunately, did not get this talent.

DETOXING BY DETACHING

Stress is a byproduct of exaggerated fears and thoughts we give life to by hanging on to them and ruminating about them incessantly. Rumination entranches false beliefs and makes them appear real. It’s pretty darn masochistic, but most of it comes from autopilot behavior programmed by an overactive defense system. We can opt out of reflex cling mode with awareness.

One of the keys to managing a major source of circular worries, job stress, as well as creating better work-life balance, is leaving work at work. That shuts off the day's stressors and allows the body to repair itself from the effects of strain and tension. It’s called work recovery by researchers, a process of detaching from work thoughts and engaging in experiences that help restore the body to pre-stressor levels. It's a reset button that flips the switch on stowaway stress with proactive recovery strategies.

Initiating leisure and recuperative strategies is something few of us are equipped for in a culture in which idle time is the devil’s time. As a result, most of us go home without a plan for how to let go of the day’s events and shift over to another mindset. And managers would never imagine that they can play a major role in the process simply by encouraging staff to recharge after work in whichever way they enjoy—exercise, to music and hobbies.

The science shows that psychological detachment from work through relaxation and recreation isn’t something to feel guilty about—it’s essential for attention, engagement, and health. Without recovery from the strain that results from unmanaged demands, any number of medical issues, from cardiovascular disease to irritable bowel to burnout can occur, as well as poor performance, cynicism, presenteeism and absenteeism.

RECOVERY IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Research by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz and others has documented that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress. No doubt, these folks are also having a lot more fun, since stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain.

New research shows that turning off the stress replay machine after work is as critical for employees and leaders as it is during work hours, and that managers can play a key role in helping employees restore well-being at home. A study that looked at the intersection of supervisor signals and norms around recovery (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that when employees are encouraged by managers to unwind after work, they are more likely to do just that, leading to a healthier staff and workplace. “If supervisors adopt norms supporting employees leaving work at work, employees will seek to meet these expectations,” the authors wrote. 

Supervisors who are supportive of exercise, recreation, and pastimes have a big influence on the employee’s ability to shift out of the work mind and get the relaxation, social interaction, or detachment they need for recovery. Job strain and time pressure over the course of the day tax mental resources, requiring extra effort to get anything done. If energetic and self-regulation resources burned up over the course of the day aren’t replaced, it comes out of our performance hide the next day and the next in the form of fatigue, researchers have found. The toll has to be countered on a daily basis. 

READING THE SIGNALS

When managers don’t signal that it’s okay to step back after work, the Bennett, Gabriel study found that employees are more prone to take work home with them and to ponder work issues. This tends to occur when supervisors and employees have a very tight connection, which is usually a good thing, especially for employee engagement. But when people are very close to their leaders, they want to help them out more, even to their detriment of not being able to let the office go after work and doing more than they can do well.

It starts with something as basic as asking what a staffer is doing to recharge and refuel. Inquire about hobbies. What do they do for exercise? Let them know that performance is the sum total of the whole person—energy, health, optimism, and mood. People who go home with negative affect and stress that is not alleviated come back to work the next day with negative affect. Let employees know you want them to leave the workday at the office and live a healthy life outside it, since a fresh and energized mind is the key to productivity in the knowedge economy.

So what can we do to restore resources at the end of the day and shut off the stress loop? Let’s look at the four main routes to work recovery: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. Studies show that these recovery processes can reduce fatigue, increase work engagement (Brummelhuis, Bakker) and improve health and well-being (Sonnentag, Binnewies, Mojza).

 FOUR RECOVERY KEYS

1. Psychological detachment. This is a fancy description of something pretty logical. Stop thinking about work and the worries that flow from it. It's easier said than done, though, when the adrenaline is high after a tough day and/or commute, and the rumination parade of projected anxieties is under way.

Continuing to think and talk about work issues keeps you mentally at work, so find ways to change the subject. Another option is to create physical and electronic barriers to prevent the default to a desk or work emails and help separate work and home. Imagine yourself flipping a light switch off as you leave work. You’ve switched over to another job now, your life.

2. Relaxation. There is a false belief in our work culture that you have to be at the threshold of pain or near collapse before you are entitled to relax. Taking care of yourself needs no justification. Relaxation is built in to the human physiology. Activation periods of stress are meant to be followed by the reparative parasympathetic system of rest and maintenance. Relaxing is essential to recover and restore the body and the brain's equilibrium to pre-stressor levels. 

Create a buffer zone when you get home from work of 30 minutes or more if you can to do what you like to do to relax—go for a run, meditate, hit the gym, listen to music (one of the best stress shifters since stress is dependent on dire mood). Make it a routine. 

3. Mastery. Research shows that mastery experiences are one of the best ways to promote recovery and knock out stress. These are activities done outside of work that allow for personal growth, skill-building, and learning. We all have three core needs--autonomy, competence, and conection with others. Mastery experiences put us in touch with these needs and get us aligned with who we are. 

Whether it’s cycling, salsa dancing, learning a musical instrument or a language—studies show that the mastery process can shut off stress activation even in the middle of work, at lunchtime, as well as at home. Identify things you want to learn, potential passions, and you crowd out negative affect with positive autonomy and competence. A passion can add eight hours of joy to your week, the ultimate antidote to stress.

4. Control. The activating ingredient in stress is control, or rather, the lack of it. The more control, or latitude, we feel we have over a stressor, the less perceived stress. There are two sides of the control issue, control at work, i.e., having the ability to make some decisions about work processes, not the work itself, and leisure control, deciding how to spend your off-hours. Find ways during the day to experience more choice over how you work, or get a shot of it on a break. One study found that playing a computer game on a break increases recovery (Reinecke). 

Increased leisure control reduces strain by helping you feel more in charge of your life and able to put aside a bad day with something that lifts you up and is autonomous. The idea here is to identify what you, not others, like to do for fun and recreation and indulge it regularly. You have to be entrepreneurial about your leisure activities. No one can choose them or make them happen but you. Most of what we do outside of work is ad hoc, minus thought or planning. Put leisure ideas and activities on the calendar, or they don’t happen. Take your life as seriously as your work.

The strain-stress cycle is pretty simple in its insidiousness. It goes off automatically and we react on reflex, fanning the false alarms with rumination and helplessness. The solution is getting off autopilot,  contesting stress, and engaging in recovery processes that help us get back to the pre-stress state. Work recovery science shows us the way forward, that managing stress is both a proactive work AND life process in which we learn how to put McCartney’s advice to work. And let it be.

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Tags: stress management, stress management training, stress relief, work stress, work recovery, burnout

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