It makes intuitive sense that taking breaks from work is crucial for maintaining physical and emotional health. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s felt burned out after a long week at the office knows, this is getting harder to do, and the research proves it. As work creeps into our time off, maximizing the precious downtime between emails and phone calls becomes more important than ever. And as scientists write in a new study, certain activities are better for recharging than others.
The paper, published in September in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, says that the emotional and mental effort we invest in work is like water in a reservoir. The team, led by Jan de Jonge, Ph.D., a professor of work and sports psychology at Eindhoven University of Technology, explains that each morning, a person’s reservoir begins (hopefully) somewhere near full, and as they perform activities through the day, that reservoir is drained. You never want the water to run dry.
Leisure activities outside of work are meant to restore the water in that reservoir so that when the routine begins again the next morning, there’s no risk of coming up empty. The research suggests that some activities refill that reservoir better than others do, both in the short and long term.
Activities For Short-Term Restoration
In a survey of 230 healthcare workers with hectic work demands, the researchers found one category of activities that was most useful for unwinding at the end of the day: low-effort activities. The team lists watching TV or listening to music — “almost perfect off-job activities” — as examples.
“Involvement in leisure activities such as watching TV, reading a book, listening to music, or even doing anything to ensure that job demands truly end,” the researchers write. “Employees are then able to replenish their personal resources and fully detach from work.”
To measure their level of replenishment, the researchers asked the participants to respond to statements about how well they cognitively detached from work. For example: “After work I put all thoughts of work aside.” Along this same line of thinking, they suggest that low-effort actives are helpful because they don’t engage the brain in the same way work-related ones do. But importantly, the level of detachment may depend greatly on how each individual enjoys these activities. To demonstrate this, the authors cite a 2016 paper from the journal Work & Stress, which indicates that people only really seem to reap restorative benefits from certain activities if they like them in the first place.
There are probably not many people who strongly dislike listening to music or watching TV out there, but for people who do, these papers suggest that some other low-effort activity that is dissimilar to a work-related one would likely be a good replacement.
Activities for Long-Term Restoration
The team measured the long-term restorative value of an activity by investigating its impact on sleep quality. Previous research has shown that sleep is an essential part of not only preparing the brain to be productive but also specific waking behaviors like decision-making.
Here, the survey results become a bit perplexing. They showed that active household duties like cleaning or caring for children were associated with improved sleep quality over the course of two years. There is, however, an important caveat. In a 2012 study published in Work & Stress, performing household activities near bedtime was positively associated with recovery but only in individuals who reported enjoying the process. In those who reported negative moods during household work, that study’s authors noticed a negative effect on recovery at night.
In total, both short-term and long-term restorative activities might differ in practice, but they have one underlying commonality: People get no recovery benefit — at least cognitively — in an activity that they find unpleasant. To sum it all up, the authors of this study offer a single piece of memorable advice:
“In general, we believe that employees should spend leisure time on leisure activities that they like most.”
In short, just have fun. It doesn’t particularly matter how.
This study examined whether particular recovery activities after work have a positive or negative effect on employee recovery from work (i.e., cognitive, emotional, and physical detachment) and sleep quality. We used a two-wave panel study of 230 health care employees which enabled looking at both short-term and long-term effects (i.e., two-year time interval). Gender, age, marital status, children at home, education level, management position, and working hours were used as control variables. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses showed that work-related off-job activities were negatively associated with cognitive and emotional detachment in both the short and long run, whereas low-effort off-job activities were positively related to cognitive detachment in the short run. Moreover, household/care off-job activities were positively related to sleep quality in the long run, whereas physical off-job activities were negatively associated with sleep quality in the long run. The long-term findings existed beyond the strong effects of baseline detachment and sleep quality. This study highlights the importance of off-job recovery activities for health care employees’ detachment from work and sleep quality. Practical implications and avenues for further research are discussed.