Think about a typical end of the workday for you. Go back to that moment where you leave your office (or your home office!), your industrial plant, your store, your hospital, and start heading home. You probably made a mental checklist of what you have accomplished that day and of the issues you need to tackle the next day and started thinking about how you will spend the rest of the day.
For some of us, this is a good and gratifying moment: we feel excited about having some free time to engage in our favorite activities – whether they may be aerial yoga, crochet or football practice -, we look forward to seeing our partners, get the kids from school, or to have a well-deserved beer with some friends.
However, for others among us, this is a dreadful hour. While dragging our feet to our car or the bus stop, we feel drained from all our energy. We can only think about collapsing in our sofas; the thought of going to the gym or to the gardening workshop we decided to sign up for is painful, and even if we do go to those activities, we seem unable to concentrate on what we are doing. The voice of our spouse and the happy chatting of our kids about their school day makes us want to hide in the bathroom, alone and in peace.
If you find yourself identifying with the second description, your need for recovery is very high at the moment. This “postwork irritability”, as it has been called, is characterized by feelings of overload, irritability and social withdrawal. Regardless of the type of work you do, the country you work in and how many years of experience you have, you have probably already felt it at some point in your career. In itself, experiencing a high need for recovery occasionally is not a cause for concern. However, when the effort requested by the work demands largely exceed the time and possibilities to recover, i.e., to go back to your baseline levels of strain and energy, the cumulative process can have adverse health outcomes in the long run.
So, what should you do to lower your need for recovery? Research has shown that four main recovery experiences foster unwinding and stress reduction – and no, it’s not necessarily Netflix binging or peppermint tea! These four recovery experiences may manifest differently across individuals, as each one of us may have one or two “best strategies”. It is the experience, not the activity that matters: for example, I can find meditation extremely relaxing, while someone else may experience it as highly demanding or boring.
Let’s describe each one:
- Psychological detachment: it means precisely being away from the work situation. Yes, getting out of the office helps, but it’s irrelevant how many miles separate you from work if your mind stays there. Detachment means not receiving work-related calls or emails, not thinking about work problems, and being able to “switch-off” work-related thoughts.
- Relaxation: this is an old classic, right? It means doing leisure activities and/or activities that put few social, physical, or intellectual demands – a walk in nature, quietly breathing, reading a book… Anything that puts you in a state of low activation and high positive affect can be considered a relaxation experience, even if it is not the same for others.
- Mastery: those off-job activities that take our mind off work because they provide other learning opportunities or challenges. Taking a painting class, learning how to hula-hup, knitting a blanket with a difficult pattern, or climbing a mountain can all be mastery experiences, as long as they allow you to experience competence and proficiency. You may want to avoid extra hard activities, which will only overtax your capabilities and have the opposite effect!
- Control: Yes, this means being able to decide what to do with your time. It’s not very useful to have free time only for “mandatory” chores like taking out the garbage or tending to your younger siblings. Feeling in control of spending your time was shown a good predictor of recovery and a buffer against depression and anxiety.
And for you, what works best?
To know more:
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.